The “Bourne” movies revivified the espionage genre with their nimble, scrappy, down-and-dirty action. But they weren’t as widely imitated as one might have expected, which leaves “The Contractor” feeling like a relatively fresh chip off a not-so-old block. Chris Pine stars as a forcibly decommissioned U.S. Army careerist whom financial straits push him into a sketchy private militaristic security job. Needless to say, that goes south in a hurry.
Swede Tarik Saleh’s first American feature is more impersonally commercial than prior projects (including 2017 Sundance jury prize winner “The Nile Hilton Incident”), and more efficient than memorable as a medium-scaled adventure exercise. Still, being a solid cut above average is good enough, given so much formulaic mediocrity among thrillers cluttering the streaming market. Already released in several territories during March, the film is scheduled for launch to U.S. theaters, digital and on demand platforms April 1.
Things start out unpromisingly in a rote mode of I-love-my-flag-and-family sentiments underlining that Special Forces Sgt. James Harper (Pine) is a straight-up Good Guy. He’s just out of rehab for a serious injury incurred during the last of four combat rotations in five years, all of which has kept him overmuch from the wife (Gillian Jacobs) and son (Sander Thomas) he adores. But called into Fort Bragg by the brass, he’s brusquely informed that due to a “filthy” drug test result — he’d been medicating for his painful knee — he is being discharged, effective immediately. It’s an “honorable,” yet his pension, healthcare and other benefits are abruptly gone along with the paycheck.
Creditors were already closing in, so this is not just a bitter injustice, but a financial catastrophe. James has little choice but to hit up a close buddy, his former officer Mike (Ben Foster), for leads on the kind of private contractor work he’d sworn he’d never do. As it happens, Mike is currently in the lucrative employ of one Rusty Jennings (Keifer Sutherland), whose coffee import/export business is a cover for for-hire covert operations manned by service personnel who’ve been “chewed up and spat out” just like our hero. Rusty makes a point of differentiating himself in profane terms from the likes of real-life Blackwater founder Erik Prince — suggesting he, by contrast, solely does the Right Thing. “We deal strictly with matters of national security,” he assures. The price is certainly right: A $50,000 check gets cut for James even before he starts.
Soon he’s on a plane to Berlin, where he spends several days spying on Salim Mohsin (Fares Fares), a Harvard-educated virologist purportedly involved in bioterrorism research funded by Al Qaeda affiliates. Then he, Mike and local contact Katia (Nina Hoss) execute a nocturnal raid of the lab facility — providing this action movie its first real action, well past the half-hour mark. Their mission somewhat messily accomplished, however, they’re faced with a police phalanx. After a shootout, James is left alone, weakened and increasingly aware of the extent to which he has been double-crossed.
It is this midsection that is the film’s strongest suit, as our hero is hunted by both government forces (this mission having become an international incident) and his own erstwhile allies. More a classic leading-man type than a credibly hardened military lifer, Pine nonetheless has the physicality to convince us James can roll with various very hard punches here, whether underwater, in subterranean tunnels, or at a crowded intersection turned second bullet-riddled melee. His survival strategies are nicely drawn in J.P. Davis’ screenplay, and staged with tense but non-hyperbolic resourcefulness by Saleh in well-chosen locations. Things slow down a bit when James finds brief refuge in the unlikely form of Eddie Marsan, while the remaining story beats (which include a return Stateside) grow more predictable, but satisfying enough nonetheless.
Those hoping Pine and the always-welcome Foster’s reunion would be the class of “Hell or High Water” should lower those expectations considerably. Most of the overqualified supporting actors (also including JD Pardo) are too briefly seen to be made much use of, with Hoss particularly wasted. Still, “The Contractor” succeeds as a locked-and-loaded intrigue sufficiently grounded in plausible mercenary-style chicanery worldwide — and that industry’s exploitation of ex-military personnel — while avoiding any heavy political messaging. Of course, Erik Prince may disagree.
Ostensibly set mostly in Germany, the well-turned production manages to pass muster with a disguised, primarily-Romanian shoot. DP Pierre Aim’s widescreen images and editor Theis Schmidt’s pacing are adept, while Alex Belcher’s original score is at its most effective when stripped down to an urgent electronic pulse.