The Contract is a fairly straightforward action/thriller, starring two of the most respected actors of their respective generations and directed by an Oscar-nominated veteran well known for his sterling touch with both material and cast. So, is it any good? Let's find out. . .
As the story begins, we're in New York City following Frank Cardin (Morgan Freeman), leader of a group of ex-military types who are apparently planning an assassination, having recieved the go-ahead for the job and putting things in place to pull it off. Shortly after Cardin arrives in the state of Washington to prepare for the attempt, he is involved in an accident which sends him to the hospital. Finding his sidearm, the cops quickly realize his IDs are fakes, and are informed that he shouldn't exist - Cardin has long been thought to be dead. The regular cast of government types arrive to transport him to justice.
Meanwhile, widowed ex-cop Ray Keene (John Cusack) is dealing with his rebellious teenage son Chris (newcomer Jamie Anderson), who's been getting in trouble; he's still having problems after losing his mother, it seems. Ray decides on a camping trip - something Chris enjoys - to get away, and hopefully have some father-son bonding time together. Cedar Rapids State Park seems like a great choice, especially since Chris has been there hiking and whatnot before, so off they go.
Of course, these two strands collide when Cardin's gang waylays the transport car, takes out most of his escorts, but don't count on the car going off the mountain and into the river. Which is where Ray and Chris find a handcuffed Cardin and a dying man who tells Ray very little beyond the fact that Cardin's a prisoner and all-around bad guy before he kicks. Retrieving a gun from the dead man, Ray is thrown back into authority mode; he decides they've got to get Cardin to the police. Unsurprisingly, Cardin finds problems with that course of action - his men are coming for him, make no mistake. And if Ray doesn't just let him go, he and his son are both as good as dead. Ray's sense of honor and ethics trump that play, and they begin the trek for help, with Chris leading due to his familiarity with the terrain.
But Cardin's men ARE coming - and soon, the chase is on.
The Contract is an odd case, a direct to video flick that, obviously, was never meant to be one. Witness the fact that it's shot in full-on 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the participation of Freeman and Cusack, and has Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant) calling action on the piece. However, watching the flick, you can pretty much tell why. It's simply not GOOD enough to be a theatrical release (funny, I know, cause any week of the year you can catch any random Hollywood release that doesn't deserve to play in a theater near you either); not to say it's bad, exactly - it's not - but it's undeniably flawed, but plays well enough at home. So, to make this easier, we'll just play the pros vs. cons game and be done with it.
The pros have mostly been laid out for you already; did I mention that Morgan Freeman and John Cusack are in this mofo? Freeman's presence as the (ostensible) heavy lets us know that this is one of those "noble" hitman movies. Surely he started his career with nothing but the best of intentions, yet the things he's seen and done have left him cynical and world-wearied, but still an utter professional - he gets shit done, and that's all he knows how to do. Freeman is, of course, all manner of awesome; he knows that to underplay, to riff off of the subtleties of the character is far more effective than histrionics and hamfistedness. Cusack is equally fine, trying to do the right thing and bring this criminal to the law, yet he's got to concern himself with his son's safety first, and at all costs. He builds on Ray's sense of right and wrong - remnants of his old life apparently have lingered and these old habits have died hard - as well as his mounting fear that he may have, in fact, sentenced both himself and his son to a violent death.
Beresford, the old pro Aussie, hasn't lost his professional's touch, that's for sure. The flick looks great, moves at a fine pace, and he's cast his actors well (for the most part, anyway). This isn't a surprise, as this wily vet's been playing the game for over two decades now - and I know that most readers of this site aren't huge fans of, say, Driving Miss Daisy, but seriously; for the type of movie that is, it's a superb example of it. And I don't care what you say: Tender Mercies (and Robert Duvall, in the role that gave him his Best Actor statue, rocks it) is a fine, fine film. Beresford's last big release was the Ashley Judd vehicle Double Jeopardy. . .which honestly, I've never watched, but my mom said it was great, and since she was undoubtedly the target audience for it, I take that for what it is. With this flick, though, he's surrounded himself with a crew that knows what they're doing, specifically the hugely talented cinematographer Dante Spinotti. The man makes this flick look STELLAR, with great compositions and the beautiful shots of the landscape, great lighting and camera movement. Which is to be expected, I mean - look at the flicks the guy's worked on. Michael Mann's Manhunter (his first big American job), Last of the Mohicans, and Heat. Raimi's (not perfect but great-looking) spaghetti homage The Quick and the Dead. L.A. Confidential, for Christ's sake. And I'd say, without doubt, he's the ONLY reason that Brett Ratner's last four or five flicks have looked as good as they did (it damn sure wasn't Ratner's directing).
Now, for the bad. Starting off with a couple of weakly-cast roles, by actors I don't know and don't expect to see much more of. Yeah, we've got vets Jonathan Hyde, Bill Smitrovich, and Alice Krige in small roles, but the rest of the cast is fairly unremarkable, and not very good. But the main offender, and the main flaw and reason why this movie is not a total success, is EASILY the script. Someone needed to go over this bad boy (shit, Cusack could have done it - I've seen a couple movies the man wrote and thought they were good) and at least done a dialogue polish, as seemingly every five minutes or so, there's a wince-worthy line. The story could have made a good movie - it's a fine premise and solid characters to build on. However, the script falls flat and doesn't make the most of it. Some of what happens doesn't really make any sense, and seems fairly stupid at times, with characters doing things that don't ring true. That's about all of the bad, but trust me - it's a BIG bad, and loses the movie some strong points it would normally have in its favor.
The DVD from First Look is fine; it looks and sounds fine. There's a nice featurette, "Inside The Contract," that runs about twenty minutes. There's interviews with Freeman, Cusack, Beresford, Anderson, Spinotti, and a small army of producers - they go over the story, actors, directing, and shooting the flick. Not bad at all. There's also a look at other movies from First Look, and a photo gallery.
It could have been better, sure. It SHOULD have been better, yes. But I've definitely seen worse, and The Contract is not a bad movie, not at all. It's just. . .okay, I guess. Some good acting, a decent twist or two and a well-done stunt or two add to the thrills in this B-movie. A lazy afternoon and a couple beers (if that's your thing) with this movie would do ya fine, methinks.