The Contract (2006) / Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence, brief nudity, drug references, and language
Running Time: 93 min.

Cast: Morgan Freeman, John Cusack, Jamie Anderson, Megan Dodds, Alice Krige, Jonathan Hyde, Ned Bellamy, Corey Johnson
Director: Bruce Beresford
Screenplay: Stephen Katz, John Darrouzet

Set mostly in the back country of Washington state, but almost entirely shot in Bulgaria, the production smacks of taking the cheapest roads whenever possible, hoping that star power will be able to overcome the limited budget and lack of distinction in the plot.  Unfortunately, despite starring popular and normally enjoyable actors like Freeman (10 Items or Less, Lucky Number Slevin) and Cusack (The Ice Harvest, Must Love Dogs), The Contract is a very routine thriller, where an average Joe gets stuck in the middle of a heated battle between cops and criminals, forced to play the hero in order to do what's right and to gain back he respect of his rebellious son.

The story starts off with Freeman playing a top-dollar mercenary named Frank Carden, who, along with his crack team of assassins, has just successfully put out a hit on the son of a powerful politician.  However, things go wrong later when an "accident" ends with Carden going to the hospital only to awaken to find that he is now in police custody.  While being transported through the scenic rural areas of Washington, Carden's men attempt to spring him out of their protection, and they almost succeed until the U.S. Marshal, knowing he is likely to die but not wanting a dangerous killer like Carden free, hands over custody to a civilian, a high school teacher named Ray Keene and his son, Chris (Anderson).  Despite the danger, Keene is intent on doing what's right, although Carden's men are tenacious and deadly.  Keene must find a way to get Carden into police custody again before he gets killed, either by the assassins, or the crafty Carden himself.

The only aspects of note of The Contract are the famous lead actors, Cusack and Freeman, who, despite relatively shallow characterizations, deliver the quality performances that you'd expect.  Cusack is fine as the everyman hero, even if he's not playing the most rational father out there, willing to put himself and his son in mortal danger just because he can't say no to the challenge.  A former cop, he gets a thrill from being able to bust a big fish criminal like Carden.  It's not really a memorable role for him, but it's workable. 

Freeman is the one that brings more to his role than the script mandates, as he is a bad guy, but not evil, only seeing his role as an assassin-for-hire as a job rather than a pleasure.  He continuously tries to offer Ray and his son a way out of their predicament by just letting him go, but Keene is skeptical of his intentions, as he could just have them killed anyway.  It certainly doesn't help that Ray and son continuously divulge personal information about who they are and what they do in life, which definitely would make them easy to hunt down should Carden get free.

The film follows along a predictable path, as there will be crosses and double-crosses along the way.  An extra wrinkle is added later by introducing a twist that might potentially lead to the the President himself being in danger should Carden get away, along with a subplot that Keene might be in danger from the authorities trying to cover things up that doesn't really make much sense.  It gets even more contrived once Keene, a widower, eventually gets a tagalong in the form of an attractive female camper (Dodds, Ever After) whose boyfriend (conveniently, for story purposes) gets clipped not long after the couple is introduced.  Once the set up is there, it's easy to see where it's all going, and consequently, the tempo never comes close to the fever pitch required to make this the thrilling action film it needs to be in order to truly entertain.

Bruce Beresford (Double Jeopardy, Evelyn), who previously worked well with Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy, seems out of his element in working with the mostly Bulgarian crew to deliver the tension and intrigue required.  There are a few bits of action that have a chance to provide some interest, but they are awkwardly handled and edited, perhaps due to the limited production expenses and short timetable for shooting.  It all seems rather cheap and rushed, with the main players working with material that doesn't require anyone of their talent or stature.  Without the appearance of the main stars, this would be the sort of film you'd find nowhere else but the direct-to-video market.  The Contract is an unfortunate waste of time and talent -- their talent, our time.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo