The always-solid Pine plays Special Forces Sergeant James Harper, an elite agent with a bum knee who gets discharged from the U.S. Army and watches the bills pile up with his wife Brianne (Gillian Jacobs). That’s when his former squadmate and good friend Mike (Ben Foster) reaches out with a proposal. Mike has been doing off-the-books operations for a veteran named Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland). The money is good, the jobs are quick, and it will give James purpose again while providing for his family. As Mike says, “We’re all just mercenaries in the end,” giving the opening act of “The Contractor” some weighty dramatic material that the rest of the film doesn’t fulfill. It’s easy to think about the last time Pine & Foster starred in a drama that hinged on the lie of the American Dream. If “Hell or High Water” was the Western version of that concept, this is the Tom Clancy-inspired one.
The problem is that writer J.P. Davis and director Tarik Saleh seem afraid to do anything interesting or unexpected once they have their pieces in place. It’s not surprising at all that the mission that James and Mike are contracted for blows up in their face. And only people who have never seen a movie before will be surprised to learn that Rusty isn’t telling them everything they need to know. Ultimately, “The Contractor” becomes depressingly routine. The action isn’t interestingly staged, and the plot has less twists in its 100 minutes than your average single episode of a spy drama. It all feels like set-up, getting people ready for a series of a film franchise, but so narratively thin on its own that you could recount the plot in like 15 words or less.
This all means that the cast has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get this bare-bones film to two stars, which they do. They’re the real mercenaries here as Pine finds a sadness that balances the heroic approach lesser actors would have taken and proves he still has great chemistry with Foster. Nina Hoss is sadly wasted in a small part but Eddie Marsan gets a great scene that breaks the tedium of the second half with its near-capture/escape structure as James tries to find his way home.
Other than a remarkable lack of ambition, there’s nothing explicitly wrong or dreadful about “The Contractor.” It checks boxes for what feels like an older audience who misses the days when action movies were made about American heroes instead of super ones. Honestly, those movie watchers deserve better too.
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