The Contractor Review: A By-The-Numbers Thriller With Some Killer Performances

Action thrillers, especially ones about military or ex-military special operations, are a dime a dozen. Post-9/11, these stories of brave men and women fighting in the name of patriotism and nationalism were everywhere. For every "Hurt Locker" there were half a dozen straight-to-VOD releases capitalizing on American fears and dreams of exceptionalism. "The Contractor" falls somewhere between the two, featuring a few great performances and some refreshing course changes while unfortunately still feeling like a by-the-numbers special ops thriller. 

The film starts with U.S. Special Forces sergeant James Harper (Chris Pine) getting discharged from the military after they discover a variety of drugs in his system during a routine screening. These aren't recreational drugs, by the way, but instead are a part of remaining physically fit and still moving after years of physical trauma: think steroids, painkillers, and some human growth hormones. Harper basically gets told, "Thank you for your service, now f*** off," by the brass, and no amount of trying to explain himself will help. Everything Harper has ever known is being tossed out, and he has to find a way to provide for his wife (Gillian Jacobs) and young son. Their debts are climbing and the future looks uncertain when Harper's best friend and fellow ex-military man Mike (Ben Foster) tells him about an opportunity to make some serious cash working in the private sector. Harper is hesitant to work as a contractor because many of the jobs are ethically dubious and extremely dangerous, but Mike reassures him that his boss (Kiefer Sutherland) is a good guy, and that the work they do has full presidential approval. It's secret special forces work, but he figures that if it's signed off on, it can't be that bad, right? 

Harper, Mike, and a small elite crew all travel to Berlin to kill a Middle Eastern scientist who studies viruses and other pathogens in humans. While in the thick of it, however, Harper begins to realize that his mission is not what he believed it to be, and his whole worldview starts to crumble apart. The mission goes sideways, and forces Harper to question everything and everyone he knows. From there the movie becomes a pretty standard story of what happens to special ops soldiers trapped "behind enemy lines" without anyone even aware of their mission. One standout scene features Harper finally getting a moment to breathe, chatting with another ex-special forces guy (brilliantly played by Eddie Marsan) about the unique lives they lead. The sequence gets into the heart of what the film's about, pointing out that soldiers are often just pawns for greater powers, and it's the best-acted, best-written part of the whole movie. It's one of a handful of moments where "The Contractor" tries to communicate something a bit deeper than the standard action fare, but it's not quite enough to save the movie from its predictability.

Chris Pine saves the day

One of the major points in the marketing for "The Contractor" was that it was reuniting Pine and Foster for the first time since their 2016 Western crime flick, "Hell or High Water." The two actors are great together, and both deliver thoughtful, nuanced performances that give their characters significantly more depth than the script provides. Jacobs is also putting in the effort, matching Pine's intensity without ever veering into the "hysterical wife" territory that's become a kind of trope for movies like this. The one less-than-stellar performance comes from Sutherland, who phones it in as a smarmy, cut-throat contracting organizer who makes a living off of other people getting their hands dirty. He's fine, but compared to the performances Pine and Foster are giving, he's not quite giving enough. 

The weak link in "The Contractor" is the script, which occasionally veers into new and interesting territory only to immediately revert to basic thriller beats that feel predictable and stale. It's a shame, too, because the direction by Tarik Saleh is very good, utilizing hand-held cameras and some great tight close-ups to keep the story personal. The editing by Theis Schmidt is wonderfully tight, the score by Alex Belcher is perfect for the tone of the film, and the camera work by acclaimed French cinematographer Pierre Aïm is excellent. Screenwriter J.P. Davis doesn't have many credits under his belt, and this is only his second feature (the first was a rom-com starring Matthew Modine called "The Neighbor"), so there is plenty of potential for him to grow in future films and dig deeper into some of the more complex themes "The Contractor" presents. 

It feels like Chris Pine is moving into the sort of Jason Bourne-esque career path that Matt Damon took years ago, and while he's certainly good at it, here's hoping he gets a chance to play some meatier roles. Foster and Pine can continue to reunite in as many films as they want, though it would be fun if they continued to change the genre each time. 

While "The Contractor" is ultimately sort of a middling action thriller with strong performances to hold it afloat, the movie's willingness to point out the flaws of the government, military, and patriotism is ultimately a nice change of pace from the usual hoo-rah. It will likely upset some of its audience who came in expecting to have their own egos stroked or daydreams fulfilled, but that's what makes it a little better than the average shoot-em-up. "The Contractor" challenges expectations in many ways, it just never goes quite far enough. 

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10