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STUDIO: Sony Pictures
MSRP: $24.96
RATED: R
RUNNING TIME: 98 Minutes
SPECIAL FEATURES:
"A Look Inside The Contractor"

The Pitch

Shooter meets
Léon.

The Humans

Wesley Snipes (Passenger 57), Eliza Bennett (Nanny McPhee), Lena Headey (300), Ralph Brown (Alien 3), Charles Dance (Last Action Hero)

Nutshell

Semi-retired expert military marksman James Dial (Snipes) is contracted by CIA agent and former boss Jeremy Collins (Brown) to kill a high profile terrorist in British custody in London. The hit’s a success, but a botched escape leaves him wounded and holed up in a safe house. An orphaned and lonely teenage girl neighbor (Bennett) takes care of him and eventually becomes his friend and almost partner. Meanwhile Collins is desperate to find Dial and eliminate him before the British authorities, led by the father/daughter detective team of Windsor (Dance) and Ballard (Headey), are able to question him about this and other shady assignments.


Having handily vanquished Bruce Payne, John Cutter never imagined he’d be stopped by a pair of nail clippers.


The Lowdown

It’s no secret that former action heavyweights Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme now dwell in the DTV dungeon, but probably less well known that Wesley Snipes now joins them for poker Friday nights. Perhaps sensing the writing on the wall, he had 2004’s Unstoppable in video stores a few weeks before his theatrical swan song Blade: Trinity even hit theaters.

Unlike his aforementioned DTV comrades, Snipes is a capable actor who has played a variety of roles over the years from action to drama to comedy. One would think he would still be in healthy demand, but then again outside of the Blade franchise he’s never had any really big hits without high-powered costars like Sean Connery and Sylvester Stallone.

Of course there are stories that he was exceptionally difficult to work with on the Blade: Trinity shoot, so it could be a case of burned bridges. Or maybe at 42 he hit the age ceiling. I recall reading an article in the New York Times a few years ago asserting that there was limited life in Hollywood for actresses past age 35. Perhaps the line is around 40 for second tier action stars. Van Damme’s last American theatrical release came at age 38, and Seagal initially bowed out at 46 before being briefly resuscitated by Joel Silver and Slim-Fast.


"Goooooood morning Baghdad, this is your Marines wake-up call. Time to rise and assume the position."


Whatever the case, pending a fourth Blade it appears Snipes is in DTVland for the long haul. Last year brought the thoroughly generic action thriller The Detonator, and the quirky, mildly interesting Pulp Fiction-lite Hard Luck. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.

The Contractor seems to take after Van Damme’s most recent release Until Death, which took a grounded, character-focused approach more dramatic than action-packed. So it’s best you go into The Contractor expecting little in the way of fireworks. Near the end Snipes has an engagingly brutal fisticuffs at a construction site, and a tense shootout in a hotel kitchen, but both are quite brief. A confrontation in an airport baggage area fails to come anywhere near the great Die Hard 2 scene, although I think it’s the first gunfight I’ve seen shot with a strobe effect. Laughably every time someone pulls a gun the lights begin to flicker dramatically.

Director Josef Rusnak (The Thirteenth Floor) must be a Tony Scott fan, for a variety of camera gimmicks like freeze-frames pop up during action scenes. Overall though he does an impressive job within the confines of the modest budget and conventional script from the writer of Don Johnson’s Dead Bang. Parts of The Contractor could pass for theatrical product. Though it was filmed partially in Bulgaria, you’ll never notice unless you’re looking for it.


"Dutch?! I think not. Get that Discover Card back here."


The man on the run/government double-cross plot is engaging but quite familiar, so the film is heavily dependent on the performances. Whereas Van Damme stole the show in
Until Death playing against type as a jaded sleazebag, Snipes isn’t given a lot to work with. Dial is subdued and not very talkative. I was waiting for him to make a cocky quip about something, anything, but it just isn’t that sort of character. At least this seems to have been a conscious choice by Snipes and not mere disinterest as in The Detonator.

On the other hand Headey, Brown, and Dance make for one of the classiest supporting casts I’ve seen in a DTV production. Bennett gives a solid performance that is worldly but not unduly precocious, and endearing but not saccharine. Maybe not on the level of Natalie Portman in
Léon, but up there with Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire. It’s too bad she doesn’t have an eccentric and/or damaged character to play against like Jean Reno’s Léon or Denzel Washington’s Creasy.

Several other key relationships are introduced and left only barely defined. The oddly subdued animosity between Dial and Collins in their final confrontation hints at a long friendship that is never really established, especially since Collins acts throughout like a soulless manipulator. To the film’s credit the end of that scene boldly bucks the B action cliché.


Principal Rooney didn’t care about Mr. Smith’s unconventional methods, or his two dozen twins who sometimes hung around the teachers’ lounge. All that mattered was that truancy was down 99.9%.


As terrorism figures into the plot, albeit tangentially, the film does have a few things to say about the current state of world affairs, mostly in the form of little jabs at the U.S. administration. Collins acts like a smug, overbearing asshole toward his British counterparts, who grudgingly cooperate while cursing him under their breath. When a British officer is killed during the hunt, an emotional Ballard demands to know why Dial is such an important quarry, and Collins dismissively replies he’s vital to the interests of the U.S. government. Ballard scoffs, as one wishes the White House press corps might get up the nerve to do some day. On the other hand, Collins does get a somewhat sympathetic scene in which he gripes that he takes all kinds of risks in the service of his country and the only thanks he gets is a subpoena from a Congressional oversight committee.

Though The Contractor shows much promise, and easily surpasses the lazy Detonator, it’s ultimately only moderately compelling. The problem with eschewing action in DTV productions is that the script is rarely clever enough to make up the difference. I suspect a lot of character development ending up getting cut, undermining the film’s key strength.


"Here’s a little gift from your old friend Minnesota Fats."


Still, this very polished DTV is one more sign that these projects are really narrowing the gap with theatrical films. Next to The Contractor the average Seagal DTV looks like a kindergarten play. That is, if the kindergarteners were heavily sedated. And really, why shouldn’t they be? Why let Mother Nature decide when naptime is? Wimbledon final on TV? NyQuil Twinkie time. Seagal swears by them.

The Package

Like the film itself the cover is well presented, although it gives the false impression that this is another shoot ‘em up like The Detonator. And that Wesley is going to get his jungle fever on, a promise I believe The Detonator also failed to deliver on. It’s a sad state of affairs that the wheezing, porcine Seagal seems to be exercising his libido a lot more lately.


Taking a page from the explosively successful American Idol, Iron Chef introduced its own asshole British critic.


Sony is notorious for brown paper bag DTV releases, despite the virtual impossibility of understanding whatever Seagal is sleepily mumbling into his armpit without subtitles. However they went all out this time. Not only are there multilingual subtitles, but an actual feature: "A Look Inside The Contractor." Unfortunately this turns out to be a shallow promo piece, full of kind words for Wesley and Bulgaria but no discussion of the action mechanics. According to the cast and crew Wesley "is faster than the camera" and "brings earth, smell, sweat" to the film but not "a whole bunch of ego." There, I knew David Goyer was full of crap.

5.5 out of 10