“It’s on.” With that statement, Morgan Freeman opens The Contract, a tale that intertwines a dysfunctional father and a professional killer, one trying to protect his son and get to the authorities, the other trying to get back to his team and hit his target, and neither side willing to budge an inch. These opposing characters, in the capable hands of Freeman and John Cusack, are incredibly strong. It’s just a shame the story that puts them together is considerably weaker. There’s nothing exceptional about Ray Keene (Cusack). The former cop turned gym teacher has been through the tragedy of losing his wife, and raising his son has turned into a challenge as the boy, Chris (Jamie Anderson), has reacted to his mother’s death through rebellion. In an effort to bond with his son, Ray suggests the two go camping. After all, his son is an experienced camper, having previously traveled through their intended area with Outward Bound.
What the father-son team aren’t prepared for is Frank Cordell (Morgan Freeman), an ex-armed forces skilled assassin, who winds up in the same area as Ray and Chris. Frank takes on a two-stage contract for his mercenary team, but in between the stages, Cordell is in a chance car accident that leads to him being identified. His team attempts to rescue Frank from custody along the road near the Keene’s camping location, but the rescue goes wrong and Frank ends up in Ray’s custody, handed off by a federal marshal. With Frank’s team chasing them, Ray has to lead his son to freedom and the fugitive into federal hands. Of course, that isn’t easy when the person signing out the contracts suddenly gives a rogue member of Frank’s team a contract for Frank himself.
The best thing The Contract has going for it is the obvious draw: talent. John Cusack is a personal favorite of mine and his ability to play the everyman – a character just about anyone can relate to – is in full force here. You feel bad for the situation Ray is in: the sadness of the loss of his wife, the frustration of his son, etc. On the other side, of the considerable talent pool in Hollywood, I can honestly say Morgan Freeman would be low on my list of possible armed forces trained assassins. Still, he plays a convincing enough killer with a sympathetic edge. One minute he’s saving young Chris from falling off a steep cliff, the next minute he’s knocking the hell out of Ray in an effort to gain the upper edge and his freedom. Freeman can play a darker character without having to have the physical presence though, an added plus since he’s in cuffs for half the picture.
Visually the movie is quite stunning, making full use of its woodland locale. It’s not a big surprise to hear that once you find out the cinematographer is Dante Spinotti, the Oscar nominated cinematographer for L.A. Confidential and The Insider. His lens is put to good use here by the equally talented director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), really capturing the beauty of the surroundings. At the same time, some of the film is awfully dark, perhaps relying too much on natural light. Faces are shrouding in darkness at inappropriate times, building a sense of frustration instead of a sense of suspense.
Where the movie really falls short is the story, which ranges from mildly confusing to just plain inconsistent. Alice Krige plays an FBI Agent who clearly has more interest in having Frank dead than found, but she’s spearheading the operation to find him. One never understands what her motivation is in either direction. Working for her is a new member of Frank’s team, Davis (Corey Johnson), who does nothing but bitch to the finely tuned team until money turns him against them. You can’t help but wonder why a highly trained team of mercenaries would want Davis in their numbers. At the same time, you get the sense that the team is finely tuned and highly trained because of how their operation works and how they carry themselves, but they never actually show that in their activity. Their rescue of Frank is rather inept, and they are taken down far too easily by a country cop turned gym teacher for a bunch of military-trained mercenaries.
The Contract is enjoyable action/suspense fluff, but nothing more than that. Visually it may look good, and the performances are exactly what you’d expect from the names involved, but the story goes no deeper than that beauty and talent. It’s a shame because the concept is interesting enough and the talent is in place, both in front of and behind the camera. Unfortunately the movie as a whole doesn’t step up to the level of the talent involved. As a direct to DVD movie, I would expect more out of a DVD presentation of The Contract. While the movie itself looks great with a beautiful picture transfer (which made me wish I had the HD DVD version available for comparison), there is next to nothing other than the movie on the disc. With only a photo gallery and a making-of featurette to support the movie (and an array of trailers for other First Look releases), this is all but a bare-bones release.
The making-of featurete, titled “Inside The Contract” pretty much highlights the things I said above: talented cast and crew makes a movie. Both actors talk about what it’s like making the movie, the crew talks about what it’s like working with such a talented cast, and some producers talk way too much. Sorry producers, we appreciate you finding the cash for movies, but unless you are actually directly involved in making the movie, there’s no real interest in hearing from you. It doesn’t appear that these producers were that involved.
Sadly, that’s it. I searched for hidden commentary tracks or something else to help this DVD release out from mediocre marks, but there’s nothing there. Essentially the DVD bonus materials are just about getting you interested in other First Look releases, not sharing how this movie was made. I expect far more from a DVD release, particularly for a movie whose main means of distribution is on DVD. As a mediocre film with a simplistic approach for its release, The Contract is not one I’d recommend for anything more than a fun little rental.
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