Chris Pine often seems too pretty, too nice, decent and, well, intelligent for his movies. He’s comfortable sharing the screen with both men and women, and can persuasively shift registers, all while letting you see him thinking, not just emoting. His range elevates action movies like “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” a 2014 take on the Tom Clancy property. Even so, I forgot that I’d reviewed “Jack Ryan” until I looked it up recently. Like too many of Pine’s movies, it just didn’t stick.
Multiple knowns and unknowns shape the careers of actors — the choices that they make and the good and baffling ones that are made for and despite them. For whatever reason, Pine has never taken off the way he should have. One obvious explanation is that unlike, say, Andrew Garfield or the Marvelites named Chris (Evans, Hemsworth, Pratt), Pine hasn’t slipped on a superhero suit. He did voice one of the title characters in the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” but that was a collective rather than self-aggrandizing endeavor.
And while Pine has done time in the superhero world (including as Wonder Woman’s squeeze), his biggest franchise turn as a headliner has been in the uneven “Star Trek” series, in which he plays Captain Kirk. (A fourth is apparently in the works.) Pine has made Kirk his own with a deft balance of personality and character homage that holds the center even when the movies collapse around him. He has also appeared in a raft of fine and middling smaller movies. What’s missing from his résumé is more work that’s sharp and distinctive enough to rise above the gray middle, the way that his 2016 western “Hell or High Water” did.
Which brings me to Pine’s latest, “The Contractor,” a thriller that yearningly evokes the Bourne series while never approaching its level. (Pine even mentions that franchise in this movie’s production notes.) He plays James, an Army Special Forces officer recovering from a serious injury that he suffered out in the field, and that has nearly ruined one of his knees. It’s a character-defining detail (he’s vulnerable, physically and otherwise) that also works as a convenient plot device. But James’s struggles also extend to the home front: Like many American families, his is badly in debt and the bills keep coming.
“The Contractor” has some serious things on its mind, notably James’s crisis of faith about service, nation and his military father’s legacy. The first hour or so sets up his situation steadily with introductions and explanations, along with a dramatic jolt that sets the narrative on its course: As he hobbles toward recovery, with bills spread out on the kitchen table, James is booted out of the Army without a pension for taking unsanctioned meds. He’s still a good guy, the story assures you, though it whiffs on assigning who’s to blame for his dire straits: him, his superior, the military or the bitter dregs of what’s still called the American dream?
All these earnest sensitivities fade for a time once the story shifts gears, turning the movie into a tight, brutal thriller. Seeing no other option financially, with a small family to support — Gillian Jacobs does what she can with the rote wife role — James signs on with a private military firm. The energy picks up with the entrance of Ben Foster (Pine’s co-star in “Hell or High Water”), a former Army buddy who works for the outfit and now owns a big house and truck. The casting of Kiefer Sutherland as the company’s owner is a nice touch, mostly because you know that there’s a whole lot of serious trouble coming James’s way.
Written by J.P. Davis and directed by Tarik Saleh, “The Contractor” finds its genre groove once James signs up with the company. As more pieces click into place, the filmmakers heat up the story and the atmosphere, creating a mounting sense of unease. James heads off to the owner’s ranch, where burly he-men help run a coffee company, presumably a nod at the veteran-owned Black Rifle Coffee Company (one of the Jan. 6 insurrections wore one of its logoed caps). At some point, amid all the wolfish smiles and bulging muscles, someone lobs an insult at Erik Prince, the founder of the private military firm Blackwater.
The second half of the movie moves quickly, boom, boom, boom, and shows off Saleh’s ability to fluidly stage violent set pieces. James is sent to Berlin on an enigmatic assignment involving an mysterious scientist and, after some tension-ratcheting quiet, things rapidly go south. The great German actress Nina Hoss briefly shows up, adding a dash of glamour to the escalating mayhem. Pine and Foster sync up flawlessly, even when the dialogue fails them. This isn’t the reunion they deserve, but it’s nevertheless welcome. In silence and in action, they show you the unfathomable loss that the rest of movie never coherently expresses.