Director: Tarik Saleh
Notable Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gillian Jacobs, Kiefer Sutherland, Eddie Marsan, Florian Munteanu
As the industry continues to shift in recent years, it’s hard not to lament the loss of certain mid-tier genres in the wake of a spectacle-driven box office. The death of the mid-budget adult-targeted film is well recognized throughout film criticism and industry analysis where many great writers have spoken about it at length so iterating the eulogy here is not the best use of my word usage. With the rise of streaming, however, there seems to be a grasp towards grabbing those genres and reclaiming them for a modern era.
The Contractor, exemplifies this.
Although this latest old-school espionage thriller is receiving a small theatrical run this week, its sale to both Showtime and Paramount+ at the same time is indicative of this move. The Contractor is not the spectacle-driven spy flick that Mission: Impossible or James Bond fans might expect, but it is a solid sleeper hit that manages a balance between modern political themes and old-school espionage tension and thrills. It’s not wholly the most thrilling watch, thanks to a very drama-heavy first half, but its dedication to creating realistic characters and then throwing them into the military action shouldn’t be written off as boring either. The Contractor is simply more throw-back tone than anything. It’s utterly refreshing at times.
Featuring one of Chris Pine’s most subdued and heartbreaking performances, the characters within the world of The Contractor are all layered with the weight of contemporary issues and debates. The film, written by J.P. Davis, has a lot of say about the state of veterans that are forgotten in the system, or in the case of James Harper - played by Pine, how they are unceremoniously ejected out by the pressure of maintaining a career in the military. Its themes are carried throughout and it strikes an impact when the film wants to hit on them later on in the film.
The film adds a humanistic face to characters caught in the gray areas of this machine, how Harper and his family are deserted due to his own fears of failing or aging out of the only life he’s known, and it grounds the film in a rather bleak first act. Although the family dynamic ultimately takes a backseat to Harper’s own internal turmoil to set the plot in motion, The Contractor is adding in an artistic and dramatically cinematic heft to a film that could have ultimately succumbed to focusing on the action rather than the characters. The writing and tonal heaviness doesn’t always execute the ideas in full, but the ideas are there.
When Harper meets up with an old friend, a welcome secondary performance from the always impressive Ben Foster, The Contractor shifts gears towards a more traditional military-style thriller. As it turns out, there is a place to go to earn cash for veterans within the private military complex. When Kiefer Sutherland pops up as the head of this outfit, seemingly ready to give Harper the cash he’s always dreamed about, an audience is sure to understand where the latter half of The Contractor is heading. It’s not going to be a happy place, I assure you. Not with the gravely voiced Sutherland barking orders anyway.
The grounded and realistic military action works in symmetry with the slow-burning narrative of its first half. The classic 1970s spy thriller mentality embraces the character study, ala The Day of the Jackal, but it's not negating the lessons of modern spy films either, particularly in the intense bouts of shockingly effective action. As our hero joins the private military outfit and heads to Europe to execute a questionable mission, the tropes are all set up for what this film has to offer.
Strong action sequences may not be plentiful in The Contractor, but they are impressively executed through realistic firefights on the ground and a second act cat-and-mouse chase where Harper goes underground while trying to make it home through a plethora of untrustworthy circumstances. The tension finally starts to mount in this second act survival game, punctuated by a surprise small role from Eddie Marsan, and it represents the best material The Contractor has to offer. When the final act rolls around, pitting Harper’s sights back towards home and on a quest for vengeance (and possible redemption), it’s easy to see why STX greenlit the film for production. The build from opening to closing is a steady climb, but a satisfyingly brutal one even if the plotting of its mission is as muddied for the audience as it is for Harper.
Although initial word of mouth about The Contractor is that the film is far too boring, for me, it was a pleasant surprise that showcases the depths of Pine’s acting prowess and manages to offset the slow burn of its old-school atmosphere with a bit of modern military action. The leaps from its dramatic first act to its tension stacked and chase focused second act before its siege centered third act don’t necessarily move in the smoothest ways and its realistic approach to style can leave the film feeling too heavy for more general action audiences.
Still, there is an old-school mentality and intriguing depth to The Contractor that sticks with me that I find refreshing. With Pine delivering another throwback thriller in the coming weeks over on Amazon, it’s fascinating how his career has shifted gears. The Contractor might be a bit too slow or meticulously paced for some, but it is also a fantastic counterbalance to the spectacle-driven material that dominates the genre now.