Chris Pine, Kiefer Sutherland’s film runs low on action and drama

Chris Pine’s new starrer is set-piece cinema that tries to entertain as old-school action drama, though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to give the film inadvertent topicality. At a time when British intelligence has alleged the deployment of private mercenaries in eastern Ukraine to aid the Russian attack, Pine gets into the boots of an ex-military man who becomes a gun for hire. Far removed from the ongoing Ukraine crisis, his reel avatar is on mission to bust bio-terrorism activity, and unlike what is often reported about mercenaries in real life, the protagonist here is a true Hollywood hero who never engages in human rights abuse.

For Pine, the film is among several recent projects that have marked a gradual makeover from the carefree charmer of Just My Luck or Blind Dating to a hero tackling deeper angst. In The Contractor, his character draws torment from the fact that he is a soldier discharged from the army without pension or healthcare benefits and has a family to take care of. The scenario, like many films since Sylvester Stallone drew focus to the issue with his 1982 blockbuster First Blood, aims at highlighting societal neglect that soldiers in the US often face once they are out of service (“Gave them our minds, our bodies and our spirit. They shoot us up and spit us out,” says a character, underlining the essence of the film). Plot-wise, the idea should have opened up scope for an interesting mix of violence and drama.

Yet, for all its billing, director Tarik Saleh struggles to fulfil the film’s primary objective of regaling as an action thriller. A film of this genre rarely reveals the ambition of setting up a storyline that can be hailed as pathbreaking, but despite an element of predictability the least one would expect is a dose of spectacular violence served with dramatic twists. As JP Davis’ screenplay plays out, you realise the narrative is surprisingly low on action. If you were hoping for vintage action stuff, the film manages to entertain only in fits and starts.

Pine plays James Harper, a much-feted veteran who is dismissed from the United States army after it is established he took drugs to ease the pain of an injury. Harper’s pension is severed and he is deprived of healthcare benefits. Plunged in financial crisis and with a family to look after, he joins a private group of mercenaries headed by a veteran named Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland). Harper has been introduced to Rusty by his friend Mike (Ben Foster), who also works with the private military group. Mike informs that Rusty executes secret missions for the US Department of Defense.

Saleh and Davis invest unnecessary screenplay time to set up bleak melodrama around Harper’s home scene, piecing together the hero’s back story and his struggle to fit into a world that’s changing around him even as he desperately tries to make ends meet. The approach cuts down pace of storytelling.

Things picks up when, after getting a sizeable initial payment that helps him clear debts, Harper goes to Berlin with Mike on his first covert operation. Their mission is to take down a virologist named Salim (Fares Fares), said to be a bio-terrorist working for Islamic fundamentalists. Harper and Mike are accompanied by the ex-Mossad agent Katia (Nina Hoss) on the job, which turns out to be easier than anticipated. Harper senses soon enough that the mission might not be as transparent as it was made out to be.

The film’s comment is simplistic. Highlighting apathy towards military veterans, it tries depicting how governments often abuse the military skills of ex-soldiers to attain morally questionable goals through violence. The message delivered appears unconvincing, mostly because it isn’t new. Almost every film about mercenary soldiers has harped on the issue down the decades.

Technically, the film looks too ordinary, with cinematography (Pierre Aim) and editing (Theis Schmidt) rarely providing cutting-edge sheen to the frames. The bigger letdown has to be the writing.

Experts on the subject have questioned the film’s accuracy while portraying covert military ops, but we will stick to analysing the fiction part of the show. Director Saleh and writer Davis have set up a narrative of convenience, taking too many liberties to tie up the pieces as the film moves towards a formulaic climax. Action fare as these are expectedly larger than life, but the film’s surfeit of flaws in screenwriting dilutes the impact of drama. The narrative sets up routine stunt scenes including chase sequences, gunfire and explosions that you have seen once too often. It is a reason why, despite a runtime of just above 100 minutes, the film struggles to hold audience interest.

The problematic writing hampers character creation, too. James Harper could have been an authorbacked advantage for Pine but for the overdose of cliches that goes into creating the character, its miseries as well as machismo. In a role that strictly does not demand complex acting, Pine would still have clicked as an action hero if the stunts were enjoyable. The action scenes, however, are too shoddily set up and too hastily executed for impact.

The film reunites Pine with Ben Foster, his co-actor in the Oscar-nominated and universally acclaimed crime drama, Hell Or High Water, and the stellar supporting cast doesn’t end there. Saleh couldn’t have hoped for a better deal for his Hollywood directorial debut, what with the film’s credits flaunting the calibre of Kiefer Sutherland and Eddie Marsan. Both these incredible actors essay roles that would have worked with an element of mystery about them. Unfortunately, insipid writing comes in the way. In a plot manufactured to begin, unfold and end in a set pattern, characterisation and acting are often the casualty. This film bears evidence to the maxim.

The Contractor is not good enough to be memorable as sleek action fare. Neither is the film bad enough to pass off as grindhouse action. It is a middling piece with a top cast that falls between two stools, which is its problem.

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