Director Tarik Saleh has not previously been known for exuberant action cinema. And so it’s no surprise that his latest film THE CONTRACTOR is a very reserved representative of the genre and is even reminiscent of John le Carré in the best moments. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: The Contractor (USA 2022)
After Special Forces Sergeant James Harper (Chris Pine) is involuntarily discharged from the army, he finds himself in debt and desperate. In order to continue to provide for his family, he decides to join a private military company alongside his best friend (Ben Foster) and under the command of another veteran (Kiefer Sutherland). His first, seemingly simple mission takes him to Berlin, but the elite soldier quickly realizes that he is in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy and finds himself fleeing for his life across Eastern Europe.
Director Tarik Saleh has directed many a brittle genre material in his career. Most recently the crime drama “The Nile Hilton Affair”. It’s no surprise that the action thriller “The Contractor,” distributed internationally by Amazon Prime Video, is so completely different than first impressions suggest. What do we have? A poster of a grim-looking Chris Pine (“Star Trek Beyond”) and a waving American flag in the background. A film title that only contains one word (in USA it means “contractor”), which is reminiscent of the one-man shows of Jason Statham, whose recent works also often only consisted of a single term (“Wild Card”, “Cash Truck “ etc.). And then there is the involvement of the aforementioned streaming giant, which has already produced films like “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” and “Alex Rider” on the platform, which at best stood out for their average quality. Maybe some people will feel a little offended when they realize that “The Contractor” only very partially meets the expectations of an adrenaline-charged action festival. This applies both to the surprisingly high quality and to the very succinctly told story about a privately operating military agent who is everything but not an action hero.
Brianne (Gillian Jacobs) learns from her husband that he has been excluded from military service.
If a person suddenly enters a not-so-legal environment in a genre film, the question of “why” is asked, but is often only taken up again in the course of the story if the possible quarrel with the motives is relevant to the further course of the plot is. Regardless of whether it’s a John Wick or “Nobody” protagonist Hutch Mansell: If the circumstances require it, you’re suddenly back in the fighting mode you’ve long since put aside. Now, “The Contractor” does not tell of an act of revenge carried out for private reasons, for which the main characters suddenly return to their martial arts. But the eponymous contractor, James Harper, is also forced by emotionally depressing events into an area that he actually didn’t want to have anything to do with. The early exit from military service – and then also due to an injury that developed as a result of service with the weapon – causes the financial situation of his family, consisting of his wife and son, to falter to such an extent that the otherwise hardly talented (and due to his previous history Ex-Marine, who has little motivation to work in a “normal job”, accepts the offer of a good friend to join a private military unit. Screenwriter JP Davis (“A neighbor to fall in love with?”) cleverly counteracts the justified preliminary judgments such as “But he could do a different job, one that is less in legal gray areas” by spending a lot of time drawing the character of his protagonist, who is strongly defined by his job as a soldier, and on top of that also the transition to the paramilitary organization draws plausibly. If a long-time companion has accepted this job and is now sitting in front of him alive and wealthy, it can’t all be that bad…
“Screenwriter JP Davis cleverly counteracts justified preconceptions by spending a lot of time drawing the character of his protagonist, who is strongly defined by his job as a soldier, and also plausibly depicts the transition to the paramilitary organization.”
The fact that James still has to go out of his comfort zone for the mission that takes him to Berlin is always credibly embodied by the stoic-looking Chris Pine, who speaks primarily through his physical appearance. He performs his action skills as routinely as he can from his operations at the front. Nevertheless, his James Harper is far from a classic action hero. Although he never acts too clumsily, he lacks both coolness and the necessary calmness in extreme situations. And so James is allowed to make mistakes on his mission and not act nearly as routinely as his numerous action film colleagues. In addition, by spending a lot of time with James’ private environment, Tarik Saleh manages to build an emotional closeness to him, although later on he hardly gets the opportunity to actively exhibit his human side. Nevertheless, he shows an emotional closeness to the events; The circumstances of his actions do not (yet) leave him indifferent, even if he is actually only supposed to do what he is told. John is just a contractor and is therefore much more approachable to the audience than John Wick, Ethan Hunt and others like them.
John has no idea what he’s getting himself into…
The mission as such is not exclusively characterized by pre-calculated planning. The unit repeatedly suffers setbacks that cause them to improvise until John Harper is finally completely on his own. “The Contractor” seems largely realistic despite its premise, which, as is usual for the genre, clashes a little with the limits of realism. The production by Tarik Saleh also fits in, whose documentary style is reminiscent of recent film adaptations of John le Carré novels (“A Most Wanted Man”, “Traitors Like Us”). Its USA setting is also dirty and doesn’t show Berlin as an attractive metropolis. Instead, Saleh’s regular cameraman Pierre Aïm leads (“The Nile Hilton Affair”) the spectators in dull, shabby corners of the capital; with the sewers as the rat-dominated climax. He never crosses the line of over-stylizing a focal point. It’s enough that no prestigious landmarks are photographed here and the dreary gray-on-gray of the main streets is captured one-to-one, just as you experience it when you wander away from the “beautiful corners” of Berlin. And like Rachel McAdams in “A Most Wanted Man”, Chris Pine in “The Contractor” also gets to ride the (here Berlin) subway in style…
“‘The Contractor’ seems largely realistic despite its premise, which, as is usual for the genre, clashes a little with the limits of realism.”
The very successful components – from the staging to the acting – sometimes allow the actual story to take a back seat. Also because the film runs out a little in the last third. If the script allows for a surprising development (not a twist!) about halfway through the running time that turns expectations of what will happen next, “The Contractor” approaches the typical thriller conventions on the home stretch. In terms of staging, the film remains true to its grounded roots and impresses with a tailor-made final motif. But without giving his audience what they expect, Tarik Saleh doesn’t seem to dare to roll the credits. However, that doesn’t change much about the very decent overall impression of the film. “The Contractor” is a real surprise.
Conclusion: With “The Contractor”, director Tarik Saleh succeeds in creating a grounded action thriller without depicting the over-stylization of a hero or a form of routine. His main character, played by an excellent Chris Pine, has weaknesses, the mission he undertakes never feels perfectly planned out and the resulting imperfections in the process make the film mission one that one can also imagine – with some reservations – in real life could. Due to the slightly sloping final third, “The Contractor” doesn’t quite live up to the film adaptations of a John Le Carré novel, although everything about it often evokes associations with them.
“The Contractor” can be seen in USA cinemas from April 14, 2022.