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‘The Contractor’ Film Review: Chris Pine Enters the Hired-Gun Gig Economy

Nihilistic take on the struggles of veterans falls short of effective storytelling

Cast out from professional employment, a reluctant but desperate man turns to a life of precarious gig work. Though this description could apply to many in the shifting job market over the past few years, it is the dangerous and bloody plight at the heart of Tarik Saleh’s new film “The Contractor.”

Part action flick, part suspenseful drama, “The Contractor” stars Chris Pine as James, an Army special forces sergeant wounded in action, who is functionally reliant on painkillers for his knee. A change in leadership sends James packing, honorably discharged but stripped of his benefits for his drug usage.

This leaves James in the same place as many of his fellow soldiers: in debt, desperate, drug-addicted, and unfit for civilian life. He ignores calls from utility companies, with his wife (Gillian Jacobs) and son (Sander Thomas) feeling the stress quickly folding in on their humble lives.

After the death of a friend, James reunites with Army buddy Mike (Ben Foster), who tries to recruit him into private work. It’s a cushy gig with a high paycheck and low risk. Mike has a nicer house, a bigger yard, more time to give to his family. What could go wrong? It’s a small thrill to see Pine and Foster reunite after their turn in “Hell or High Water,” and Saleh’s film is at its strongest when the two of them share the screen.

Mike takes James to meet Rusty (Kiefer Sutherland) and his small private army of contractors-for-hire. Rusty is out back gardening and tosses a homegrown plum to Mike upon the men arriving. If ever there was a greater tell of a character’s inherent evil, it’s a meticulous hobby that results in an artisanal product.

Sutherland is a welcome presence, absent from the big screen for a minute, and the second he appears, it’s clear he’s the character with the most going on beneath the surface. Rusty, like Mike, assures James the contract work is lucrative, easy, and quick — a two-week job in Berlin. The only downside is that James will miss his son’s birthday. A done deal, right?

Of course not, or else we would be without a story about the perils of freelance work, about bosses who are indifferent if not conniving, about a job gone wrong. The Berlin episode leaves James injured and on the run, wondering who, if anyone, has his back. The job, for the most part, thrives in vagaries — something about al-Qaeda, something about a virus. What this gig gone awry means for James is that he is forced, in leaving his child behind to do this work, to reckon with the harshness of his own father who abandoned their family growing up.

These weepy father issues (presented in short flashback) don’t do much to give “The Contractor” much weight, which is a shame, because there’s far more melancholy than there is dimly-lit action. There’s an overarching grimness to the whole affair, which is certainly the point of J.P. Davis’s script: No one can be trusted, no one has your best interest at heart, no one will let you move on with your life. As James is reminded in a safe house in Germany: “It’s much easier to kill than to survive.”

Pine, always a charismatic performance, has little to do here outside of whispering and shouting. James, understandably, has been stripped of any personality trait that would endear him to others. In giving himself over to his work, he’s a husk of what he once was, his love for his family a tether but not a visible one. Though the first act of “The Contractor” is its lengthiest, the lazy pace does nothing to enrich the lives of the characters who we know are at stake. The action that follows is quick and cramped; sequences that should feel heart-pounding are, instead, dark and erratic.

It’s easy to forget in the mess of the mission what the point of any of this is. One can argue that nihilism is, itself, the point being made here, that these veterans are screwed no matter what. The best hope for them is one where they’re no burden on their family, financially or otherwise. But that kind of reckoning is only to be found in the margins of “The Contractor”; the rest is percussively-scored chase sequences.

Perhaps it’s because of the presence of Sutherland, but “The Contractor” feels at times like one of the slower episodes of “24,” skirting the more action-packed sequences and instead leaning back on asides and intel-gathering. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves “The Contractor” feeling incomplete.

“The Contractor” opens in US theaters and on demand April 1.

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