' ' Cinema Romantico: The Contractor

Monday, November 14, 2022

The Contractor

“The Contractor” opens with a scene of several soldiers standing in front of a church congregation, including SFC James Harper (Chris Pine), being blessed by the pastor ahead of their deployment. Not long after, James is involuntarily discharged from the military for having used steroids to treat a knee injury, though a superior officer tracks him down in the hallway after to indicate this is more about making cuts, evinced in James losing his pension and health benefits, putting his family in dire financial straits. If the former scene suggests how our society tends to venerate the military in public, the latter suggests that among its own, behind closed doors, the veneration stops. This set-up is not unlike a movie about a downsized blue-collar or white-collar worker forced to find alternative if not illegal means to make ends meet. As the title implies, James turns to private military contracting, and though it’s pitched as an antidote to the military leaving him out in the cold, the seller is played by Kiefer Sutherland with tattoos up and down each arm, the dead giveaway that it’s not on the up and up. Indeed, in the language of “The Contractor,” contracting for the military is no different than Bonnie and Clyde robbing banks.

That similarity is furthered in the casting of Ben Foster as Mike, James’s friend and fellow veteran Mike, the one who pulls him into a private military contracting job with the promise of financial rewards in the first place. They played bank robbing brothers in 2016’s “Hell or High Water,” which was moderately successful at using its neo-western trappings to explore post-financial crisis America. Despite a solid set-up, however, Tarik Saleh and writer J.P. Davis seem to have no such explicit designs for “The Contractor,” the intriguing conspiracy never becoming the ingredient for the kind of paranoid thriller that present-day cinema woefully lacks, minimized to a mere plot point. Once James tags along with Mike for an operation in Berlin that goes belly-up, leaving him injured and on the run, unsure if he can return to America to see his family, “The Contractor” goes the way of Jason Bourne, one man trying to survive while simultaneously seeking revenge. Those movies, though, especially the Paul Greengrass variety, reduced the narrative to such a degree that they simply became supreme exercises in suspense and action. The action in “The Contractor,” on the other hand, is not especially inventive or gripping. With baseline aesthetics and emotions, “The Contractor,” then, is mostly just handsomely mounted tedium.

Pine, if not able to elevate the material, at least finds an agreeable way of operating within it, exemplified in the scene where James and Mike are tasked with assassinating Salim (Fares Fares), an ostensible bioterrorist. When Salim claims the work he is doing will save lives, one shift of Pine’s eyes denotes both immediate suspicion that this operation is not the up and up and that he is nevertheless duty bound to see it through. It conveys how “The Contractor” is far more interior than exterior, in so far as that goes, which is about as far as Pine can manage to take it. When Sutherland’s character gives James an oration about how the American military has hung guys like them out to dry, the truth is less in his words than Pine’s expression, having his character look past Sutherland, as if into the abyss, as if he is trying to decide whether to sign over his soul for a little bit of money. The best moment, though, comes early, after James is discharged and is leaving the base. As he does, he passes an American flag being raised and Pine has his character not so much dutifully but robotically turn and salute, a programmed gesture that speaks multitudes about blind loyalty. 

No comments: