James Harper (Chris Pine) knows that military life has two faces. He grew up with first-hand knowledge thanks to a gung-ho Ranger dad who forced him to spend his birthday money on an American flag tattoo that matched his own despite not yet being a teenager. Was James’ father a hero? Maybe. Was he also a monster? Sure. The truth lies somewhere in the middle because the military cannot turn you into the former without first ensuring that you can become the latter. No matter how hard James tried to run from that duality, he inevitably had to also embrace it to survive. So, he killed for his country. He followed orders and destroyed his body to do it. And he made certain his eyes were open throughout.
As director Tarik Saleh and screenwriter J.P. Davis’ film The Contractor reveals, however, open eyes only guarantee you can see the strings attached to your arms and legs. James’ resumé means nothing to a new officer tasked with cleaning house. One look at bloodwork coming back with a cocktail of medications needed to perform his duties seals his fate. It’s all that’s necessary to kick him to the curb and save the government money by also relieving him of his pension and medical insurance in the process. James was irreplaceable before his knee injury. Now he’s worth more to them as a pariah. He’s not stupid, though. He always understood blind patriotism was at least partially a means to exploit him. He also knows he’s still not free.
The physical, mental, and emotional scars remain—and not just from his service, but his father’s too. James remembers what it was like to grow up and has made it his mission to spare his own son that same horror of not knowing what happened. Not that he can truly make the promise that he won’t ultimately do the same anyway. His former brothers-in-arms are all dying around him by suicide. His wife (Gillian Jacobs) won’t even attend the latest funeral because she’s already had to endure enough pain. Add mounting debts and the guy who hoped to be a career soldier is left with the choice he strove to avoid. Live paycheck to paycheck while PTSD and boredom tear his soul apart or enter the private sector.
James can’t lean on the American flag anymore if he chooses the latter. It’s no longer about duty and the often-nefarious reasons behind his missions are no longer excused by “national security” secrets. If he follows his friend Mike (Ben Foster) into battle under the flag of Rusty’s (Kiefer Sutherland) coffee import/export front, it will be solely for the cash. Because, even if he buys into the line that this work is just as important, James has no way of verifying it. He didn’t before either, but the notion that everything he did was greenlit by Congress and the President allowed for a reasonable benefit of the doubt. Doing this means he’s flying blind. He’s trusting Mike’s judgment and Rusty’s word while agreeing to ignore his own gut.
While billed as an action film, The Contractor proves more suspense thriller in the end. There are a few good gun fights (one in a darkened forest opposite police, another in the open air of Berlin against enemy combatants, and the expected finale back home), but the majority of the runtime deals with James being on the run and desperate to figure out what’s happening. The moment his mark (Fares Fares’ Syrian-born scientist) plants the seed that the research he’s conducting might in fact be the opposite of what has been sold, James is woken up to the fact that blind allegiance won’t cut it here. Giving it and being wrong means that he becomes guilty by association. Refusing to give it means putting his family in danger.
An intriguing cast of supporting characters come and go with Nina Hoss, Eddie Marsan, and more joining Sutherland and Jacobs as bit players surrounding what is really a moment of clarity for both James and Mike. Where will they draw the line? When does killing people with families of their own become too much to bear since doing so means leveraging the lives of their wives and children? Black ops are black ops no matter who sanctions it. You can neither be captured nor can you leave a trace back to your superiors. The difference here, however, is the money. Maybe a general won’t put a bullet in your head if you make a mistake. Rusty, though? With millions on the line? The odds aren’t in your favor.
Does Davis’ script give us anything we haven’t seen before? Not really. Some bits fall heavy into melodrama and the twists and turns are hardly shocking. What makes his and Saleh’s work better than those contrivances is that they are trying to say something with those familiar machinations. While not an anti-military film, it is an anti-propaganda one. They want their audience to see that what men and women like James and Mike do isn’t necessarily bad on its own, but doing those things without questioning motivations is. Because the military is a business too after all. Maybe the soldiers aren’t getting paid, but someone surely is in exchange for their blood. Whether he’s discharged or murdered, both worlds categorize James as expendable. Only he can save himself.
The Contractor hits theaters, Digital HD & VOD on April 1.