On the run from who or what, he doesn’t know. Ex-soldier-turned-mercenary Chris Pine is told by an operative whose safe house Pine is hiding out in, “It’s much easier to kill than survive.”
That bit of dialogue cuts to the heart of “The Contractor.” Pine, who plays an ex-Green Beret discharged, honorably but sans pension and health insurance because of a pain killer addiction for a wounded knee, is vulnerable in every sense of the word.
For Pine, survival doesn’t just mean dodging bullets and inflicting karate chops, but also finding a way to escape the crushing economic circumstances of being a soldier discarded callously by his government.
Editor’s note: spoilers ahead.
Faced with mounting bills, and notices of having his electricity shut off, Pine offers his services as a Special Ops soldier to a mysterious contractor (Kiefer Sutherland). Sutherland has shed his youthful, vampiric looks that he really didn’t make up for in “The Lost Boys,” and now looks like a Nordic Nazi.
That suits his role in the film as a rancher/fascist. Sutherland is in good form here as a symbol of toxic masculinity co-joined to monopolistic capitalism — a corporate type perfectly willing to let desperate people get their “hands dirty” and then cut them loose, or more likely have them killed.
The plot is muddled. It’s something about Pine contracted to assassinate a Syrian biologist who may be developing a lethal virus — welcome to the age of Covid – for Al Qaeda. The chase sequences, where Pine races through German underground sewers, are competent, albeit unspectacularly done. The “Bourne Identity” films and the Daniel Craig-powered Bonds do this much better.
For an action film, the pace is maddeningly slow, and the action scenes never really pick up the pace. The action is done in shadows and the rapid cutting makes it hard to determine who is hitting who. But the film has Chris Pine, who carries the movie admirably.
Pine, who managed to register onscreen next to the charismatic Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman,” has a Clark Gable-like effortless charm. Like Bradley Cooper, he doesn’t force himself on the audience and doesn’t seem to realize how handsome he is.
This is his most stoic part yet. His dialogue is relatively minimal, and he uses silence to convey desperation as in the scene where he discovers his benefits have been taken away by the military he once served.
Pine is indispensable, but what really elevates this routine action thriller is its message about how the nation abandons its veterans. As in real life, several of the veterans in the film chose suicide. Pine, a self-described “left-leaning liberal,” nevertheless does service to ex-soldiers by turning in a non-whiny performance where, instead of marching with Bernie Sanders, he tries to do something individually about his family’s plight.
There are father-son issues at play here, and they are effective. Pine had daddy issues with his ex-military jingoistic father, who gifted his son on his birthday with a visit to the tattoo parlor. Still, one is left to wonder why his childhood didn’t steer him away from the military. This is unexplored, and the filmmakers miss a big opportunity to show Pine is admirably patriotic in spite of his father.
Pine is a much more gentle father who nevertheless has difficulty connecting with his own son because much of the child’s life he was in the military overseas.
At times, “The Contractor” is confused about what it wants to be. Is it an action thriller with liberal overtones about dark, corporate conspiracies linked to addictive drugs? A message movie about a nation that should economically provide for its protectors? Or a chase film where the paranoia is all too justified?
As such, the film at times feels weighed down by so many themes. For an action film, it is sparse on violence, and without Pine’s stoic vulnerability, which makes you root for him, it doesn’t even qualify for a Roger Moore Bond.
For a message movie, the film is a hybrid. On one hand, it is the usual leftist broadside against unpoliced capitalism; on the other, it is patriotic about those who serve and how much we owe them.
Given our cultural climate, the makers of “The Contractor” should be commended for balancing their liberal sermonizing with a recognition that we should honor those who guard us while we sleep. In the 1970s, as in the CIA-bashing “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), the military was simply evil without any leavening patriotism. The Bourne movies, while delivering white-knuckled action scenes that, until Daniel Craig, “out-Bonded” Bond, made politically correct noises about the military without providing a plausible alternative on how to protect us.
With its message of how the government economically deprived those who make the ultimate sacrifice, and despite its liberal bugaboos about corporations who enrich themselves by pushing addictive drugs, “The Contractor” is a unique and long-overdue action thriller.