April 1, 2022 1:03 PM EDT

What happens to our fine young actors as they reach middle age? They get to play more characters who spend whole movies looking anxious and conscience-stricken. That’s the realm Chris Pine has entered with The Contractor, directed by Tarik Saleh and written by J.P. Davis. Pine plays Army Ranger James Harper, a medical sergeant dismissed from duty when the painkillers he’s forced to take for an old injury show up in a drug test. It’s an honorable discharge, but the higher-ups have stripped him of his pension and insurance benefits. Unable to support his wife, Brianne (Gillian Jacobs), and young son (Sander Thomas), James reluctantly forges a new career, as a gun for hire running secret missions allegedly connected with national security interests.

If the premise sounds tired, what’s surprising—or perhaps not—about The Contractor is how well Pine carries it. Movies about former soldiers forced to adjust to new circumstances used to be relatively plentiful, but their numbers seem to have fallen in recent years. Our interest in how men and women are treated after they’ve served our country has taken a backseat to practically everything else. But The Contractor follows a long, proud tradition of films that are critical of the military without being anti-soldier. Saleh and Davis are clear about the bewilderment and sense of displacement soldiers can feel when they return to civilian life, but their movie isn’t so aggressively anti-military that it makes you wonder why anyone would join up in the first place. Pine plays a character who found a sense of self and of community as a Ranger; his overbearing father, seen in flashback, had been conditioning him for that life since he was a kid. No wonder he barely knows where to turn when he’s kicked out.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

He also can’t keep up with the bills, which is what causes him to turn to contract work, despite Brianne’s objections. His old friend and former superior, Mike (Ben Foster, reuniting with his co-star from 2016’s superb Hell or High Water), has a much nicer house than Jack does, as well as the means to take good care of a son with special needs. How does he do it? By taking odd jobs with a smart, shady former soldier who runs a secret operation out of his ranch house. That this guy, Rusty, is played by Kiefer Sutherland tips you off in an instant that he’s no good. But Pine makes James’s gullibility, and his desperation, believable. Before long, he’s headed to Berlin, where he’s met by new colleagues including a tough cookie named Katia (played by the marvelous German actor Nina Hoss, in a way-too-small role). And for a brief stretch late in the film, the fine English actor Eddie Marsan shows up as the keeper of a safe house, a cozy repository of books, record albums, and rough wooden furniture, which in future centuries might be viewed as archaeological evidence of a man living on his own in forced solitude, building the best life for himself that he can.

What happens to James in Berlin marks the end of any innocence he may have had. There’s something comfortingly unflashy about The Contractor: the action isn’t earth-shatteringly exciting, but it’s clearly shot, with enough jolts of vitality to keep the plot spinning. But none of it distracts from Pine, which is as it should be. His James, graying around the temples, undone with worry over his family, carries extra layers of gravity that we didn’t see in Steve Trevor in the Wonder Woman films, or Captain Kirk in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek franchise. As James, Pine wears his weighty responsibilities lightly, like a windbreaker—he’s barely protected from the way the world buffets him. But in sensing his vulnerability, we see his strength. His eyes, cool and searching, show that he knows the drill: without fear, there’s no such thing as courage.

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