THE CONTRACTOR Key Art | ©2022 Paramount/STX Films

THE CONTRACTOR Key Art | ©2022 Paramount/STX Films

Rating: R
Stars: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gillian Jacobs, Eddie Marsan, JD Pardo, Kiefer Sutherland, Sander Thomas
Writer: J.P. Davis
Director: Tarik Saleh
Distributor: Paramount/STX Films
Release Date (theatrical, on demand and digital): April 1, 2022

THE CONTRACTOR is a movie where it’s difficult to know what the filmmakers are trying to say. It seems likely director Tarik Saleh and writer J.P. Davis have good intentions but lack the nuance to make their points firmly. A more cynical reading is that they are trying to add depth and topicality to a standard action subgenre.

Chris Pine stars as James Harper, a U.S. Special Forces Army Ranger who receives an honorable discharge – but without pension or healthcare – after he is caught taking illegal painkillers for a knee injury that would have already downed a weaker soul.

James wants to stay in the military, the only career he’s ever wanted or known. More, he wants to provide for his wife Brianna (Gillian Jacobs) and their little boy Jack (Sander Thomas).

James reaches out to an old Army buddy Mike (Ben Foster), who likewise lost his pension and has a family to support. Mike now works for an independent military contractor, Rusty (Kiefer Sutherland).

Mike says that Rusty’s outfit doesn’t pay as much as the top contractor organizations, but they’re loyal, and the money is good enough. Rusty explains that his group answers to the U.S. President, but they’re otherwise off the grid. Rusty strikes James as trustworthy. Mike is Rusty’s top guy, and he vouches for James, so a deal is struck.

James’s first mission with Mike and a team sent by Rusty is to infiltrate a bioweapons lab in Germany. They are to neutralize the scientist in charge, take his data, then return to the U.S.

The first two parts of this go well, the third does not, and James finds himself stranded and in big trouble on foreign turf.

Without getting into spoilery specifics, it’s hard to discuss exactly why THE CONTRACTOR’s efforts at moral ambiguity and redemption don’t play as seems intended. It’s clear the filmmakers sympathize, understandably, with military service people who are treated unfairly by the government once their service has ended. It also looks at the desperation, both financial and psychological, that can lead people to some certain employment choices.

But because THE CONTRACTOR is so intent on its action beats, which are well-executed, it doesn’t provide the time or the insight for us to fully understand James. We don’t know exactly how he views what he’s doing at the start, or precisely what’s driving changes in him as events unfold.

Pine, as he has ably demonstrated elsewhere, is a solid action hero. Foster gives a rich, complex performance. Sutherland is very well cast. Jacobs and Thomas are both good, and Eddie Marsan is effective as a late-arriving character.

THE CONTRACTOR would be easier to parse if it were not tackling the inherently controversial topic of private military contractors. The subject is too tricky for the relatively conventional handling it gets here.

One area where THE CONTRACTOR arguably makes a major misstep is in not updating the maguffin in any way. Everybody is after the formula for a pathogen that could create a worldwide flu-like epidemic. Not every viewer will agree on the implications of certain plot beats, but sadly, we all now know exactly what is likely to happen in a planetary pandemic. Even allowing for the possibility that THE CONTRACTOR was shot prior to March 2020, surely a line or two could have been dubbed in to explain how this new potential problem would be different from COVID.

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