James Dial (Wesley Snipes) is your typical ex-CIA marksman turned Montana rancher lured back by the old boss for one more hit only to have it go wrong, find himself victim of a double-cross and go on the lam. La-di-da. An obligatory car chase has just ended with the car skidding upside down down an embankment and Dial climbs out and walks away and as he does – you guessed it! – the car behind him blows up. And despite the fact the explosion is of the low rent variety found in direct-to-video offerings (which The Contractor was) you can’t help but think, damn, that Wesley Snipes was BORN to walk away from cars blowing up in the background. (To wit, not long after seeing The Contractor I saw Takers, and let me just say that Idris Elba and Paul Walker are not even in the same LEAGUE as Wesley Snipes when it comes to walking away from cars blowing up in the background.)
Most people now know Snipes as the butt of a joke – as in, the actor who was jailed for evading income tax. But if you came of age in the nineties you know Snipes as the versatile movie star, the guy who could play Good Guy (Passenger 57), Bad Guy (New Jack City), Good Guy/Bad Guy (White Man Can’t Jump) and then segue to straight drama (Jungle Fever). He had charisma to burn and genuine talent. Alas, it all went wrong, and with the IRS coming after what they were owed, Snipes – who had success in the late 90’s/early 00’s with the Blade films – was forced to slum in many a mediocre, ill-named thriller (The Marksman, The Detonator, Hard Luck). The Contractor was just another one of those, filmed in Bulgaria and Wales, and while I hate to employ a by-the-numbers phrase like by-the-numbers, well, what else can you call vanilla ice cream than, you know, vanilla? The term by-the-numbers was INVENTED for this sort of movie.
As it opens on his Big Sky ranch, Dial is symbolically thrown from a horse (his life, you see, is about to get thrown into disarray) at which points Collins (Ralph Brown*) shows up from the ever-evil justice department to advise Dial will have a second chance to take out the one terrorist who successfully survived his sniper scope. This time he does not survive, but neither does Dial’s accomplice in the immediate wake of the assassination. Now injured after walking away from the car that has just blown up, Dial high-tails it to a safe house where he meets a requisite 12 year old girl named Emily (Eliza Bennett) with personal problems (her mother & father are dead, she lives with her Grandma) who skips school to aid and abet a fugitive who keeps willingly allowing her to (figuratively) cartwheel into harm’s way. Dial is doggedly pursued by Detective Inspector Annette Ballard (Lena Headey) while also being pursued by Collins and his cohorts in an effort to eliminate him before he can blow the lid on the CIA’s secret hit squad.
There are tepid efforts to inject some character resonance but these are all unsuccessful and not the point anyway because a movie like The Contractor really has no aspirations beyond rainy-day movie (and paychecks for all involved). Like most movies of its brand, the majority of its budget appears to have gone toward one action set piece (the opening car chase) as the rest of it is un-suspenseful foot chases and un-imaginative shoot-outs in un-exotic locations. Director Josef Rusnak, meanwhile, takes this assignment as an opportunity to audition for the first Bourne movie that goes direct-to-video (The Bourne Instigator?) by furiously shaking the camera for no effective reason, over-indulging in ballistic editing and, best of all, throwing in a couple utterly pointless freeze-frames during one of the aforementioned foot chases. To quote Capt. Jack Sparrow, “To what point and purpose, young missy?” Rusnak hasn’t a clue how to blend all these pieces of style into a cohesive look that defines the film.
You might suspect such a situation would cause the Snipe-ster to turn in a rather dis-engaged performance, sending a lookalike representative to act on his behalf so to speak. But tax evasion or no, he was always a consummate professional on the screen (or so it appeared) and while his demeanor may at times appear uninspired I ask you to reconsider. In the best scene in the film – the final shootout set in a kitchen probably because it was cheap and easy to build one on the backlot – Snipes spends the entire time crouching behind metal cabinets with a blank expression, and this seems spot-on. If you were a CIA-trained assassin thrust into a shootout against a guy with a sawed-off shotgun would you be harried? Or would you be totally unruffled since this is your job? As he scouts potential items off which he can ricochet bullets he looks like a weatherman on the six o’clock news telling us about a possibly troublesome westerly cold front. No biggie. This is what I do.
The Contractor is not becoming of his talent. Here’s to hoping he learns his lesson while he’s “away” and returns to a long life of walking away from cars blowing up in better movies.
*Two entries in my 5 Movies Of Summer series have featured……Ralph Brown. 1.) I swear this was coincidence. 2.) I think Ralph Brown may need a new agent.