Chris Pine often seems too beautiful, too nice, decent and, well, intelligent for his movies. He’s comfortable sharing the screen with both men and women, and can convincingly shift registers, showing you he’s thinking, not just emotionally. Its range elevates action movies such as “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” a take on the 2014 Tom Clancy property. Still, I forgot I had reviewed “Jack Ryan” until I looked it up recently. Like too many of Pine’s movies, it just didn’t stick.
Multiple known and unknown factors determine the careers of actors – the choices they make and the good and bewildering choices made for and in spite of them. For whatever reason, Pine never got off the ground the way he should have. One obvious explanation is that unlike, say, Andrew Garfield or the Marvelites named Chris (Evans, Hemsworth, Pratt), Pine didn’t put on a superhero suit. He did voice one of the title characters in the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” but that was a collective rather than a self-aggrandizing undertaking.
And while Pine has spent time in the superhero world (including as Wonder Woman’s squeeze), his biggest franchise turn has been headlining the uneven “Star Trek” series, in which he plays Captain Kirk. (A fourth is apparently in the works.) Pine has mastered Kirk with a deft balance of personality and character tribute that takes center stage even when the movies around him come crashing down. He also appeared in a series of fine and mediocre minor films. What’s missing from his resume is more work sharp and distinctive enough to rise above the gray middle, as his 2016 western “Hell or High Water” did.
Which brings me to Pine’s latest, “The Contractor,” a thriller that piningly evokes the Bourne series without ever reaching its level. (Pine even mentions that franchise in this film’s production notes.) He plays James, an Army Special Forces officer who is recovering from a serious injury sustained in the field, which nearly ruined one of his knees. It’s a character-defining detail (he’s vulnerable, physical and otherwise) that also works as a useful plot device. But James’ struggles extend to the home front as well: Like many American families, he is heavily in debt and the bills keep coming.
“The Contractor” has some serious things on his mind, most notably James’ crisis of faith about service, nation, and his military father’s legacy. For the first hour or so, his situation steadily mounts with introductions and explanations, along with a dramatic shock that sets the story on its course: As he stumbles toward recovery, with bills spread out on the kitchen table, James is kicked out of the army with no pension for taking unapproved medications. He’s still a good guy, the story assures you, though it smells like trying to determine who’s to blame for his plight: him, his superior, the military, or the bitter dregs of what’s still called the American dream. ?
All of these serious sensibilities fade for a while once the story changes, turning the film into a tight, brutal thriller. Seeing no other option financially, with a small family to support – Gillian Jacobs does what she can with the woman’s role – James signs with a private military company. The energy increases with the arrival of Ben Foster (Pine’s co-star in “Hell or High Water”), a former army buddy who works for the outfit and now owns a large house and a truck. Kiefer Sutherland’s casting as the owner of the company is a nice touch, especially since you know there’s a lot of serious trouble ahead for James.
Written by JP Davis and directed by Tarik Saleh, “The Contractor” finds its genre groove as soon as James signs up with the company. As more pieces fall into place, the filmmakers heat up the story and atmosphere, creating an increasing sense of unease. James heads to the owner’s ranch, where stout men help run a coffee company, presumably a nod to the veteran-owned Black Rifle Coffee Company (one of the January 6 riots wore one of his logo caps). At one point, amid all the wolfish smiles and bulging muscles, someone lobs an insult at Erik Prince, the founder of the private military company Blackwater.
The second half of the film moves quickly, boom, boom, boom, showing Saleh’s ability to smoothly stage violent set pieces. James is sent to Berlin on a puzzling assignment involving a mysterious scientist and, after a tense silence, things quickly go awry. The great German actress Nina Hoss makes a brief appearance and adds a touch of glamor to the escalating chaos. Pine and Foster synchronize flawlessly, even when the dialogue fails them. This isn’t the reunion they deserve, but it’s welcome nonetheless. In silence and in action, they show you the unfathomable loss that the rest of the film never expresses coherently.
Rated R for extreme gun violence. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters and for rent or sale on Amazon, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.