Tarik Saleh is the director of The Contractor, a new Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Kiefer Sutherland action film out this Friday. In the essay, Saleh discusses the need for real, grounded stakes in an action film.
For a long time, the action genre has struggled with stakes: They are often low, or practically non-existent. Most superhero films today suffer from this deficit, as we all know that our hero will win. Sometimes, our hero is even immortal! This makes the set pieces long ruminations on good v. evil, almost like a rigged boxing match. If we are lucky, we are treated to impressive choreography and luscious vistas — but sadly, never to surprising outcomes. If you take the audience on a journey without sacrifice, it’s like drinking nonalcoholic beer. You might convince them that it almost tastes the same as real beer, but it won’t get them drunk.
When I reflect on what I love in classic movies like Heat, I realize that we, the audience, don’t know how the movie will end, because it is not telegraphed from the genesis. The film is truly character-driven, in the old-fashioned sense of that term. The filmmakers spent the time or had the luxury of setting up the characters. It is getting rarer to see action films with truly established characters. In Hollywood in particular you constantly hear producers and agents say, “It’s a very effective movie,” as if effectiveness is a quality that you can squeeze in between lunch and a meeting.
When I was given J.P Davis’ script for The Contractor, I was intrigued. I had read many good action-thrillers, but they all lacked what this screenplay had: a protagonist who felt like a real human being — like a man that could die. The script 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 shoes of the protagonist. That means if someone is killed, there is a cost. The truth is that most 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 this is for a noble reason, to create peace and harmony – but it’s pure Darwinist Storytelling.
The more a roller coaster makes us feel close to death, the more alive we will feel when it ends.
In The Contractor, U.S. Special Forces Sgt. James Harper (Chris Pine) finds himself involuntarily discharged and thrown out like a Dixie cup, without pension or health care, after risking his life for his country. When the bills pile up, he sees no other option than to get his hands dirty. He signs up for a special mission that goes south, and then realizes he is working not for the U.S. government, but for a corporation. No rescue team is coming to pick him up — instead, a kill squad is on its way to make sure he doesn’t get home to tell his story. But what’s really at stake is his soul. What happens to a “believer” who learns that he’s fighting for something false?
For me, this scenario is all too real. In 2005, I directed a documentary about Guantanamo and the war on terror. I found myself staring down a void. America had declared war on a private terror-organization – Al-Qaida – but enlisted an army of private contractors, mainly from Blackwater. This created New Rules for War, where casualties were hidden, and rules of engagement were negotiable. One soldier told me that when you join the Army, you are basically signing a blank check to Uncle Sam, but the idea is that your fellow soldiers never leave you behind. You aren’t fighting for your country; you’re fighting for the soldier next to you.
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When you work for a private contractor, you get a big check – but you aren’t protected by Uncle Sam. What happens when you take orders from people with other agendas than the national interest? And you get an order to do something that goes against your moral code? To me, this character, and this premise, had real stakes.
My favorite moment in our film is not a set piece. It comes when James wakes up naked in a bathtub, holding a gun, confused, afraid and totally vulnerable. It may sound banal, but scenes like this today take courage — from the actor, the producers and the studio. Real emotions are more dangerous than explosions.
The Contractor, directed by Tarik Saleh, opens in theaters and on VOD Friday, from Paramount Pictures.
Main image (above): Tarik Saleh and Ben Foster on the set of The Contractor. Photos courtesy of STX.