In an era not too long before our own, Chris Pine would have been a much bigger deal. Not to say he isn’t doing alright for himself now, even if it means being lumped in with the other handsome Hollywood Chrises (Evans, Hemsworth and Pratt), competing for less-than-challenging franchise roles. But what Pine brings to the party is, I’m afraid, not particularly valued at this moment in the American commercial cinema, or what’s left of it. He’s able to project an adult intelligence and an uncomplicated masculinity that you can’t really picture coming from those other three doofuses, who like so many contemporary stars have remained boyish into middle age. Pine also appears to be perfectly comfortable with his rather ridiculous good looks, relaxed onscreen with an easy confidence that, if not quite in the neighborhood of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, at least resides in the same zip code.
This throwback quality is what made Pine a perfect Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ recent “Star Trek” reboot (which, like so many Abrams projects, started out wonderfully before revealing it had nowhere to go). The actor adroitly modernized William Shatner’s Playboy-era, blowhard swagger, making him sensitive and relatable to today’s audiences while still being the guy who sits with his legs so far apart because he couldn’t close them if he wanted to. Pine gave a similarly droll performance in 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” knowingly playing up the beefcake sincerity in a genre that usually doesn’t allow a lot of room for character work. (See its dismal sequel for proof. Or don’t.)
In a quirk of post-pandemic movie scheduling, Pine has two pictures opening at the moment, both pet projects shepherded by the actor over the past few years. Unsurprisingly, given their executive producer’s anachronistic charms, both are the kind of films we don’t see very often anymore. “All the Old Knives” is a glossy, international espionage drama with beautiful actors falling in love in exotic locations, talking their way through a twisty plot based on a bestselling novel. “The Contractor” is a down-and-dirty action picture with a stern social conscience. They're both thoughtful, modestly budgeted star vehicles aimed at adults, the kind of movies that used to do a fair amount of business at multiplexes with afternoon crowds, opening in fourth or fifth place for the weekend before making most of their money on home video. They’re also both just good enough to make you wish they were better.
“All the Old Knives” stars Pine as a haunted, former hotshot CIA agent, called back to his old office in Austria to re-investigate a disastrous airline hijacking that took place on their turf eight years ago. New evidence indicates there may have been a mole in their operation, and Pine’s no-nonsense superior (Laurence Fishburne) sends him to interrogate the most likely suspect, an idealistic office-mate (Thandiwe Newton) with whom our hero had been having an affair. The two reunite at an impossibly posh wine bar in Carmel-by-the-Sea, with director Janus Metz luxuriating in sunset views of the Pacific Coast Highway and the fine fashions worn by his snazzy stars. (This is a four-star film for turtleneck fetishists.)
Adapting his own novel, Olen Steinhauer overlaps flashbacks and conflicting accounts of the operation in question, with an occasionally confusing timeline clarified by the length and color of the cast’s hair during whichever scene you’re watching. Pine is excellent as the lovelorn, regretful rogue, even if most of Metz’s direction seems to be for him and Newton to gaze at each other across the table as “sexfully” as possible. It’s the kind of role you could see Redford playing 40 years ago in a movie that would’ve had a larger scale and a few more big twists. “All the Old Knives” does have a doozy of an ending, but it flatlines for quite a long spell before finally getting there.
“The Contractor” begins about as well as “All the Old Knives” ends. Directed by Tarik Saleh, the meat-and-potatoes shoot ‘em up stars Pine as one of those special forces super-soldiers so common in the movies these days. (Whatever happened to ordinary grunts?) After blowing out his knee during one of four tours overseas, Pine’s stalwart sergeant is busted using an illegal painkiller to stay in shape, and discharged without his pension. Unable to feed his family, he turns to an old army buddy (Ben Foster) who hooks him up with a shady, private military contracting agency run by Kiefer Sutherland. How shady? Did I mention that it’s run by Kiefer Sutherland?
The film’s first half-hour is exceptionally strong in its depiction of decent men discarded by their country, doing whatever they can to get by. The ranks of their unit have been decimated by suicides that Pine and Foster reference only obliquely, communicating in the gruff, conversational shorthand of two guys who have seen entirely too much together and are fine with not discussing it any further, thanks. It’s a welcome reunion of these two actors, who so memorably played bandit brothers in the great “Hell or High Water,” ripping off branches of the Texas bank that was trying to foreclose on their mama’s house, paying the white-collar crooks back with their own money. That terrific 2016 picture had its finger on the pulse of political and economic troubles in the heartland understood by too few in this country at the time. But putting Pine and Foster together again writes a check that “The Contractor” ultimately isn’t interested in cashing.
What begins as a drama about the plight of our veterans quickly veers off into nonsense after Pine is double-crossed and left for dead over the vaccine to a weaponized swine flu virus that’s been stolen by Sutherland. All the movie’s evocative details about post-military life in America are dumped in favor of laughably improbable machine gun shootouts in bustling, European locales where henchmen armed to the teeth can’t seem to hit the side of a barn. It’s like if “Coming Home” suddenly shape-shifted into a Liam Neeson revenge picture. “The Contractor” leaves you longing for all the squandered promise of its opening reel, and the as yet unrealized promise of its leading man.