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The Contractor review: Mindless title, mindful military thriller

Chris Pine plays an ex-marine wading in murky waters in this thriller from Tarik Saleh. But it’s not your typical Friday night shoot-’em-up, writes Graeme Virtue.

Even if you were an elite sniper peering through a hi-tech scope it would be easy to misidentify The Contractor as a mindless action movie.

It is a Chris Pine vehicle in which the one-time Captain Kirk plays an ex-marine wading into the murky waters of the private military sector. Will our honourable soldier be able to hold his nose during a morally dubious operation far from home? If not, what vengeance might this highly trained warrior unleash?

That the film has such a generic title and is premiering on a streaming service rather than cinemas adds to the impression that it will be a disposable B-movie to be consumed like gloopy takeaway pizza: avidly in the moment, but with a twinge of guilt afterwards.

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Thankfully The Contractor (from director Tarik Saleh, a Swedish film-maker who started out as a documentarian) is playing a deeper game. It may bear all the hallmarks of the 21st-century military thriller – a genre where advanced weaponry, surveillance tech and tactical jargon are not so much deployed as fetishised – but it is the opposite of gung-ho.

There is the requisite early scene of Pine’s special forces dude Harper fastidiously stripping and cleaning his sidearm, but it is an uncommonly long time before a shot is fired. Instead we are immersed in the civilian side of Harper’s life between deployments. That means going to church with his young son and wife Brianne (a brief but heartbreaking performance from Gillian Jacobs) and attending to the nasty-looking knee injury that could prematurely end his career.

When Harper’s attempts at self-medicating get him discharged, this lifelong soldier is abruptly rudderless but desperate to keep his family financially afloat. The early mood hews closer to Ken Loach than Michael Bay: burdened, brooding, downbeat.

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But it is not long before Harper and his lethal skillset are being courted by private military contractors. His long-time comrade-in-arms Mike (played by Ben Foster, Pine’s volatile brother in the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water) recommends a reputable outfit run by charismatic veteran Rusty (Kiefer Sutherland) and Harper finally signs up. That his first mission as a mercenary takes him to Berlin – a city haunted by the ghosts of generations of spies – hints that it is not going to be a stand-up fight.

Despite careful planning and an abundance of gear, his team’s incursion into a virology lab goes sideways. Injured and isolated with shadowy forces closing in, Harper has to go full Jason Bourne, figuring out who he can trust while staying one step ahead of highly motivated pursuers.

The action sequences – particularly a daylight firefight and foot chase alongside a Berlin riverbank – feel chaotic in a way that seems crashingly real, but the most intense fighting is internalised. We are used to seeing lone heroes neatly compartmentalise their emotions so they can embark on violent revenge missions against those who have wronged them.

Harper’s distress at having sacrificed his principles never seems to leave him, heightened by impressionistic memories of his overbearing marine father and palpable anguish over being separated from his own family. When he resolves to find the truth at whatever cost it carries unexpected weight thanks to Pine’s raw performance.

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Since playing a badger-bearded Robert the Bruce in 2018’s mulchy historical epic Outlaw King, the 41-year-old seems to have embraced silverback status, leaning towards more seasoned characters flecked with grey and guilt.

The addition of a few more furrows on Pine’s handsome Thunderbirds head also suits his increasingly gravelly voice. So even though there are shootouts and brutal fistfights what stays with you are the concerns swirling in the margins of The Contractor, the questions that haunt Harper. What does society owe those who have served but are then dismissed? Why are suicide rates so high among veterans? What are the things that are actually worth fighting for?

It might have been appropriate to slap on a more poetic title to flag up some of these themes. But by sticking to something so direct The Contractor will hopefully draw in the Friday night shoot-’em-up crowd while giving us all something to chew over besides four-cheese deep pan.

The Contractor is on Amazon Prime Video from May 6

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic
@graemevirtue

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