Opinion

Pining for a Best Chris movie

Chris Pine's dive into Dad Cinema isn't quite a success

Five or six years ago, Chris Pine was in strong contention for the title of Hollywood's Best Chris — the winner of an arbitrary yet intuitive charm-race between Pine and fellow Chrises Hemsworth, Pratt, and Evans. Close in age and easy to confuse in name, they've all had hits, misses, and roles in superhero franchises.

But Pine, as the only non-Avenger in the bunch, seemed a little further removed from that world. He started competing for Best Chris in 2016, when he had the old-fashioned melodrama The Finest Hours, the more new-fangled (and Best Picture-nominated) topical western Hell or High Water, and the sprightly sci-fi sequel Star Trek Beyond all out in a single year. In 2017, Pine followed up with the charm offensive of Wonder Woman, where he happily played love interest and sidekick to the ultra-powerful hero.

Pine was relatively quiet in the years following: a small role in A Wrinkle in Time, a leading one in the Netflix historical drama Outlaw King, and a Wonder Woman reprise (in which his character was resurrected and, essentially, re-killed, presumably for good). Now Pine is back with two new movies at once, both making a bid for grown-up audiences — a bid that isn't quite successful.

The Contractor, which released this past Friday, is an action drama where he plays a hard-luck veteran who takes a private contracting gig that proves too good to be true. All the Old Knives, out Friday, April 8, is a more intimate thriller which sees Pine as a spy attempting to suss out the loyalties of a former colleague and lover (Thandiwe Newton).

Both could be designated Dad Cinema, which may be why they've not received much promotion. The Contractor debuted simultaneously in limited release and on VOD, and All the Old Knives will be mainly available on Amazon Prime (with a small theatrical engagement). Whatever the rationale, these movies are well-suited to an easy chair and a glass of scotch.

They also feel like unofficial continuations of a franchise Pine clearly would have liked to lead. He played Tom Clancy's famous Jack Ryan character in a reboot that stalled out in a single (underrated!) installment but wasn't retained when the character reappeared in Amazon's John Krasinski-led series. The new movies divvy up aspects of a Ryan-style adventure: Contractor has the real-world military action — a job overseas goes wrong and sends Pine's team scrambling for their lives — and Knives is more cloak-and-dagger intrigue, as Pine's character tries to close the books on an old terrorist attack. Both are set in a familiar world where decency and professionalism are revealed to be uneasy allies. 

But the difference between these movies and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a pervasive grimness — especially in The Contractor, which treads over territory similar to Hell or High Water (economic desperation pushing a good man into a violent quagmire) with a much heavier touch. Contractor even reunites Pine with his High Water co-star Ben Foster (who also appeared in The Finest Hours), vaguely imitating their straight-arrow-and-wild-card dynamic in that film. It makes for good shorthand, but the movie is so mirthless in its mission that it becomes a well-made slog through moral (and sometimes literal) murk. Old Knives is more elegant and less predictable, framed with a protracted dinner between Pine and Newton, intercut with various flashback puzzle pieces. Despite generous dollops of sex and intrigue, however, glumness settles over the proceedings like a pall. 

Pine is good in both movies. He's convincing in action and in thought and anchors the screen without aggrandizing his characters' heroism, not always an easy task. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that his Star Trek and Wonder Woman movies make better use of his movie-star bona fides than these more adult offerings.

It's difficult to admit that, too, because Pine's obvious interest in making old-fashioned, grown-up thrillers should be encouraged. It's part of why he works so well in those fantastical franchise pictures in the first place: He grounds potentially ridiculous material without condescending to it. There's an undercurrent of cockiness to Pine — how could there not be, if he was chosen to play Captain Kirk? — that he frequently and skillfully tamps down. 

But in these new movies, he tamps it down perhaps too much. It's not that either needs Marvel-style jokey punch-ups; one of Pine's great strengths as an actor is that he can be funny without issuing canned wisecracks. It's more that both Contractor and Knives seem torn between indulging that old-fashioned sense of adult male righteousness (courting the Liam Neeson audience, in other words) and interrogating the fallibility of these characters.

Pine seems drawn to a certain type of masculine grit — captains, soldiers, spies — while also being self-aware enough to question why we're lionizing them. Unfortunately, Contractor and Knives threaten to tip that balance away from his most appealing skill set. The more dashing, comparably lighthearted approach to heroics he takes in Star Trek and Wonder Woman is better at questioning traditional masculinity, while Hell or High Water offers more convincingly serious drama without the same turgid sense of repressed despair.

Pine still has the charm and sensibility to be Hollywood's Best Chris. But first he needs to find Hollywood's Best Role for Chris Pine. Neither The Contractor nor All the Old Knives is it.

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