A former U.S. Special Forces sergeant is recruited into some shady black-ops mercenary work in Berlin in The Contractor, a well-made but disappointingly formulaic action film from director Tarik Saleh (The Nile Hilton Incident). Last year’s Without Remorse was roughly the same movie, with a stronger inciting incident.
After a dull opening act, however, some exciting action shot on location in Berlin (and locations in Romania, filling in for the German capital) seriously ups The Contractor’s game. A strong midsection maintains interest through the finale, which plays out in such by-the-numbers fashion that even the cast seems to have checked out of the movie by that point.
Chris Pine stars as James Harper, a decorated soldier who is dropped from the Special Forces like a bad habit following his use of steroids to treat a knee injury. As concerned wife Brianne, Gillian Jacobs (Community) has even less to do than usual in this kind of thing.
Harper runs into old sarge Mike (Ben Foster) at the funeral of one of their Special Forces buddies, who lifts his spirits with talk of work in the private sector that would pay off his family’s creditors. Mike hooks him up with defense contractor Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland) who offers Harper a quick job in Europe that comes with a $50,000 advance payment.
That five minutes of setup is stretched out over the first thirty minutes of The Contractor, which slowly tick by without a hint of excitement as a checklist of Harper’s woes are run down one-by-one: bum knee, not-quite-honorable discharge, PTSD, crippling debt, strained relationship with family, a friend’s suicide. Viewers tuning into watch on Amazon Prime expecting an action movie are likely to have tuned out by the time the plot is finally set into motion.
But when James, Mike, and a small team of mercs begin a mystery assignment in Berlin tracking a supposed Syrian terrorist (Fares Fares, Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident star who has disappointingly little to do here), The Contractor suddenly shifts into high gear. Things don’t go according to plan, and suddenly the film becomes a Bourne movie as Harper attempts to figure out what’s going on and get back home.
Highlight: a motorcycle chase through the downtown Berlin’s streets and waterways that culminates with Harper confronting the soldiers sent after him (including Creed’s Florian Munteau), in the city’s sewers. This one pays off in both action and storytelling departments, and is one of the few scenes where The Contractor hits a bullseye.
Director Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident, a detective story set during the Egyptian Revolution, was gritty and topical; those are two aspects sorely absent from The Contractor, which marks the director’s debut English-language feature.
Attempts to inject the story with modern relevance – an H1N1 vaccine figures into the plot – come off as contrived, and scenes set in the states, including a climactic shootout, are drenched in a suburban Hollywood sheen.
But The Contractor delivers the action movie goods during its lengthy midsection in Berlin, and those who can stick out the rough opening act will be rewarded. Pine makes for an engaging presence in the lead, and director Saleh is more than competent at handling the action; only a more innovative script was needed to elevate this one to the ranks of the Bourne franchise.