Focusing on a strong performance from Chris Pine and the reality of the trauma of war and betrayal, Tamrik Saleh’s The Contractor rises above its contemporaries by doing less instead of more.
We all revel in an original take on old material and devalue routine plots for the same reason, but that misses out on how strong handling can elevate even the routine to fresh heights. The routine in films about the CIA and clandestine operations has become the inevitable corruption and betrayal of those organizations towards the individuals who work for them, as in The Contractor.
Tom Cruise‘s Ethan Hunt has been chased by his own agency in at least six of the seven Mission: Impossible films (maybe it’s time for him to find a new job).
It’s become so standard that it’s a genuine shock when it doesn’t happen (and says something about modern suspicion towards governments and systems in general). And while standard and routine can be predictable and boring, it doesn’t have to be.
James (Pine) has been an insider to these systems for so long as an experienced Special Forces soldier it would be easy to think he’d expect the same, particularly after the US Army hangs him out to dry for an operation gone wrong. Unemployed from his presumed lifelong career in the military, and unemployable due to the PTSD he has picked up along the way, Jack’s options for keeping not just body and soul but hearth and home (including wife and young son) together are limited.
It doesn’t take too many bills or too much nudging for him to be asking his old friend (Ben Foster) about the possibilities of private military contractor work.
This would normally be a brief bit of set up designed to get Jack (or whoever) off into a mission-gone-wrong — which it completely is — aided by some quick cutting, over saturated color, a booming soundtrack and coded conversations about national security. Rather than pretty-up all those usual pieces to hide how usual they are, Saleh strips them back to their bare essences and reveals more truth about them.
Even before heading back to the field, James is still dealing with the difficulties of adjusting to regular life, not just from the trauma of war (because these days everything is about trauma) but also the realization that he never really wanted to go into the military to begin with.
But it’s all he knows and because needs must he quickly finds himself in Germany trying to abscond with the work of an anonymous biologist when suddenly all the guns are pointed at him. The Contractor is thoroughly focused on James’ experience that even though this is heavily telegraphed it still connects due to the immediacy of its worst moments, whether he is having to dispose of an innocent man in a tense moment or hide in a bath tube as he dresses his wounds.
It’s real to him so it’s real to us and questions of originality go out the window. Akin to David Mamet’s stripped-down thriller scripts for Ronin and Spartan (albeit without the virtuoso dialogue), everything James does reveals something about him, and us, because he does so little.
The insularity reduces everyone around him to abstracts. Who is his mystery employer (Kiefer Sutherland) and why is he doing what he does? We’ll never know, and we probably don’t need.
It’s a point of view which unfortunately extends to close family (Jacobs) and friends (Foster) who also barely exist. All that matters is what’s directly in front of James at any one time.
But that’s as true for any of us as it is for him, and the lack of complex plot dynamics does little but to show how unnecessary those explanations frequently are. That may be the most original thing The Contractor does, and it shows.
Releasing in theaters, on Digital and On Demand on April 1, the film is rated R for violence and language. Eddie Marsan, Gillian Jacobs, Sander Thomas, Nina Hoss, Amira Casar, Fares Fares, J.D. Pardo and Florian Monteanu also star.
THE CONTRACTOR REVIEW SCORE: 7.5 OUT OF 10
Joshua Starnes has been writing about film and the entertainment industry since 2004 and served as the President of the Houston Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2019. In 2015 he became a co-owner/publisher of Red 5 Comics and in 2018 wrote the series “Kulipari: Dreamwalker” for Netflix. In between he continues his lifelong quest to find THE perfect tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich combination.