Tarik Saleh is the director of The contractor, a new Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Kiefer Sutherland action movie out on Friday. In the essay, Saleh discusses the need for real, grounded efforts in an action film.
For a long time, the action genre has struggled with stakes: they are often low or virtually non-existent. Most superhero movies today suffer from this deficit as we all know that our hero will win. Sometimes our hero is even immortal! This turns the dead balls into long musings on good v. Evil, almost like a rigged boxing match. If we are lucky, we will be treated with impressive choreography and delicious views – but unfortunately never with surprising results. Taking the audience on a journey without sacrifice is like drinking non-alcoholic beer. You may be able to convince them that it tastes almost the same as real beer, but it does not get them drunk.
When I reflect on what I love in classic movies like Heat, I’m aware that we, the audience, do not know how the film ends because it is not telegraphed from the making. The film is truly character driven, in the old-fashioned sense of the term. The filmmakers used the time or had the luxury of putting the characters up. It is becoming rarer to watch action movies with really established characters. Especially in Hollywood, you constantly hear producers and agents say, “It’s a very effective movie,” as if efficiency is a quality you can squeeze in between lunch and a meeting.
When I got JP Davis’ manuscript for The contractor, I was fascinated. I had read many good action thrillers, but they all lacked what this script had: a main character who felt like a real human being – like a man who could die. The manuscript was also very detailed in how it described the consequences of violence. As a moviegoer, I love “entertaining” violence. But as a filmmaker, I want the audience to be put in the protagonist’s place. This means that if someone is killed, there is a cost. The truth is that most of the violence is one-sided: one person has a gun, the other person has nothing. I always try to show the fear, the pain, the ugliness.
I would love to pretend it’s for a noble reason, to create peace and harmony – but it’s pure Darwinian storytelling.
The more a roller coaster makes us feel close to death, the more alive we will feel when it ends.
IN The contractor, US Special Forces Sgt. James Harper (Chris Pine) is involuntarily discharged and thrown out like a Dixie cup, with no pension or health care, after risking his life for his country. As the bills pile up, he sees no option but to get his hands dirty. He enlists in a special mission heading south, and then realizes that he is not working for the U.S. government, but for a company. No rescue team comes to pick him up – instead, a killer group is on its way to make sure he does not come home to tell his story. But what is really at stake is his soul. What happens to a “believer” who learns that he is fighting for something false?
To me, this scenario is far too real. In 2005, I directed a documentary about Guantanamo and the war on terror. I found myself staring down into a void. America had declared war on a private terrorist organization – Al-Qaeda – but hired an army of private contractors, mostly from Blackwater. This created New Rules for War, where victims were hidden and rules of engagement were negotiable. A soldier told me that when you enlist in the Army, you basically sign a blank check for Uncle Sam, but the idea is that your fellow soldiers will never leave you. You are not fighting for your country; you fight for the soldier next to you.
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When you work for a private contractor, you get a big check – but you’re not protected by Uncle Sam. What happens when you receive orders from people with agendas other than the national interest? And you get an order to do something that goes against your moral code? For me, this character and this premise had real stakes.
My favorite moment in our movie is not a dead ball. It happens when James wakes up naked in a bathtub, with a gun, confused, scared and totally vulnerable. It may sound banal, but scenes like this one today require courage – from the actor, the producers and the studio. Real emotions are more dangerous than explosions.
The contractordirected by Tarik Saleh, opens in cinemas and on VOD Friday from Paramount Pictures.
Main picture (above): Tarik Saleh and Ben Foster on the set of The contractor. Photos lent by STX.