Even the fastest of racehorses are doomed to enjoy only a short prime in their careers before they are removed from the public eye and put out to stud. Living on a secluded ranch is a fitting end, though: eating copious amounts of grain, being combed daily and poking every female inside the fence area. A horse can be content with such a lifestyle. It certainly does not miss the photographers’ lenses or the roar of the crowd. Unfortunately, Wesley Snipes probably does. During his “racing years” he was Willie Mays Hayes, Passenger 57 and Blade. For some reason, we got tired of giving a crap about him, as with so many Van Dammes and Lundgrens before, and we put him out to the stud farm that is straight-to-DVD action. For his sake, we can only hope that the bloated foreign guys who finance his new string of forgettable espionage pictures at least pet him every once in awhile. Otherwise, he deserves our pity.
In his new DVD release, The Contractor, Snipes plays James Dial, a former Army Ranger turned mercenary who is “contracted” by a shadow organization to eliminate an Arab target. For a brief second, it seems like there might be an icky terrorism theme running through the plot, as Dial’s flashbacks of his early attempts to kill this man take place in an Al-Qaeda-ish hideout. However, all fears are put aside as Dial rushes through the mission with relative ease and puts a bullet through the guy’s head, thus ending his personal torment over the issue. The mission is quick, and extremely formulaic in its construction. I will lay it out in short form, and it may sound familiar to you: Assassin travels to foreign country. Assassin meets up with quirky, enthusiastic computer-nerd contact. Assassin is quiet and professional in laying out the plan. Assassin infiltrates building by dressing up as something humorously inappropriate (i.e. clown, policeman, or in this case, priest). Assassin goes to roof or bell tower and does deed. The point is, if hitman movie cliches were dollar bills, this film could pay for itself.
The hit goes off, but the contact is a little late in picking Dial up. A chase ensues, and the car crashes into a subway. Dial manages to escape, but by this time, the fan-blades are already covered in excrement. The cops know what he looks like, and they have some evidence to help track him. In a subdued, professional-style panic, he heads to a safe house. There, he lays low while contemplating his next move. However, his entrance piques the curiosity of a 12-year-old blond British girl named Emily (Eliza Bennett), who decides to investigate this mysterious black man by breaking into his hideout. Dial is such a pro, he doesn’t even kill her. He lets her stick around for a whole afternoon asking him annoying questions like: “why are you bleeding?” and “why is the news saying you killed a guy?” Basically, we’re getting the same effect as in The Professional. The exact same. Emily is an eccentric, traumatized loner who latches onto a killer for parental/sexual reasons. To her credit, the actress playing Emily is quite convincing. But so was Natalie Portman twelve years ago.
Meanwhile, the London Police, represented by Superintendent Windsor (Charles Dance, of Last Action Hero) and his Picasso-faced daughter Ballard (Lena Headey) are hot on the trail. However, their attempts to apprehend Dial are blocked at every turn by the American NSA and its deliberately evil head man Collins (Ralph Brown). Collins and Dial have somewhat of a history, although it’s never tapped into, just skimmed lightly with lame phrases like: “Just like in Croatia, huh James?” Collins is the uber-professional, facing Grand Jury hearings back home for his many covert misdeeds. His last chance to clean up his name is to kill James Dial and disavow any knowledge of the hard shit they used to do.
From there on, The Contractor lays down its length of unoriginal pipe. Dial forges a somber outsider bond with Emily, whose baseless girl crush (aren’t they all?) leads her to hide him from a SWAT team and help him identify a sting operation. Dial does the whole “call the good cop and tell her he’s innocent” thing, and some decent agent-on-agent fighting happens. The final shootout in a kitchen feels like a ripoff of so many scenes, I almost vomited in trying to track the thefts. A tender moment at the end weakens an already shaky plot, and in 98 minutes of time, we feel like we haven’t gotten anything accomplished.
The sad part is, the quality of filmmaking is rather good. The stupid-looking cover photo made The Contractor seem like just another badly made pile, but the production values are quite good. The dialogue itself is taut and never overreaches, but does little to explain our heroes and villains. Some of the shots, including the initial car chase and a fight on a construction site are well done. Visually, it is a pretty sweet action flick, reminiscent of The Bourne Identity. Snipes is still kind of cool, even.
But a film that has only technical elements going for it will always get the thumbs-down raspberry from me. The reason why this flick is not good is because it has a critical problem earning its moments. People seem to have no motivation for their actions, largely because the script hints at things that are never expanded upon. Whenever someone dies or starts sobbing, you’ll wonder why they want you to be sad. A few times, I caught myself laughing at a little girl and her dead parents. The banter between Collins and Dial during their showdown may have also been directly lifted from other films. I just re-watched Under Siege the other day. I think the writers here did, too.
Ultimately, The Contractor is not really worth viewing for any reason. While it certainly showcases a not-untalented director and a fine performance from the young girl, it is too thin and contrived to be any real fun. Watch TNT for long enough, and something exactly the same as this will appear. Poor Wesley Snipes. After the money’s gone, and the offers start going to Vin Diesel, he’ll have nothing left but tears. Plus, I think he might be going to jail.
The Contractor DVD has next to nothing on the special features tip, which I chalk up to Wesley himself. With his grueling schedule of making film after film with basically the same theme, he barely even has time to do outtakes anymore. I’m sure if he could have, he would have provided an insightful commentary track, some stills of himself eating at the sparse craft services table, and a short documentary on history’s greatest assassins. He would have, had he the time. What we do get is a tiny bit of insight into Wesley Snipes’ new career path, and of course, French and English subtitles and Dobly Digital 5.1 Audio.
From the previews section, we learn a lot about what Snipes has been doing with himself since Murder at 1600, as well as the fates of some others past, present, and future who are joining him in the hell of overseas action fluff. Snipes has two trailers available for view in the previews section, both involve him on the run and carrying a pistol. One is called Hard Luck, about a man who has crappy luck and is being chased by mobsters or something. The other, I shit you not, is called The Detonator, and it is about an assassin whose mission goes awry and he must clear his name before being capped. Keep in mind: the movie in the above review is called The Contractor. The one I just described is called The Detonator. They are two different movies.
Also in the previews are new gems from Jean-Claude Van Damme, who plays a disheveled cop in Until Death, and Paul Walker, who I am only half-surprised to see doing this crap already. Van Damme could make a good mentor to the young Walker, guiding him through the ups and downs of relative obscurity. Walker might have to be initiated into the fold somehow, and that usually happens by committing a strange crime on an obscure party island. I suggest he be caught beating a rare bird with a coconut on a public beach in Belize.
The only featurette on the disc is a making-of blob that doesn’t last too long, called “Look Inside The Contractor”. In it, we get a lot of Snipes and a whole lot of director Josef Rusnak. Both talk a great deal about the character and how he grows throughout the film, but a deep look into each man’s eyes reveals their truth. Rusnak is a yammering foreign guy who truly gives his soul for every frame of film. He cares about who James Dial is, and cares about the cast around him. He shares stories about how we explained character arcs to the incoming actors. You could almost hear them silently laughing at him when he discusses this. Snipes’ eyes are far more tragic. Sure he knows what to say about the character, and valiantly keeps track of which movie he’s talking about. But the gleam in his eyes is not there anymore. His words are scholarly, but his voice is forlorn.
Basically, the world will continue to exist in the same fashion whether or not The Contractor is actually viewed by anyone. It might be tolerable, but my advice is to not pay to view it. The woeful tale of Wesley Snipes notwithstanding, this film is not worth seeing anywhere but on a television screen. Even then, I would suggest switching to a movie this one ripped off. Hopefully, no one will be ruined by The Contractor, but hopefully no one will skyrocket to greatness. It, in the most Buddhist of ways, should just be. Hovering on the boundary of bad, never to redeem itself, but never quite falling into the chasm of sorrow. It has everything a DVD action flick always has: guns, plot holes, one-dimensional villains, a car chase, and a little girl. It has everything, and yet, it has nothing.
Reviewed By: Daniel Solomon