The Contract Review

The question you might be asking yourself is how a film starring Morgan Freeman and John Cusack and directed by Bruce Beresford manages to go straight to DVD. However, a quick glance at some of the stats tells you much of the story: The Contract is a low(ish) budget ($25m) independent feature, filmed in Bulgaria with no studio involvement and therefore no distribution in place. But the biggest clue as to why it bypassed theatres comes when you actually start watching the film, because it doesn’t take very long at all to become clear that this is strictly amateur hour. Low rent supporting players, weak acting and torturously overcooked dialogue are the order of the day - “His cupidity will overrule his qualms.” Really?

Things begin in a smoky basement room where Freeman is assembling a gang for an undisclosed assassination contract in Washington State. Before he can get to the hit, he’s involved in a car accident and arrested after it transpires that he’s a long-time-missing ex-CIA agent wanted by the FBI. When his associates try to bust him out, another car crash leaves him floating down a remote river handcuffed to an FBI officer. Cusack meanwhile is an everyday guy with a dead wife and a wayward teenage son, who thinks some camping will be a good way for them to reconnect. Taking to the hills, they save the drowning pair and the dying cop instructs Cusack to escort Freeman to the authorities. But with Freeman’s highly trained cronies giving chase, that will be no easy task.

The Contract is not a horrible film exactly, but there’s just so much wrong with it that’s hard to ignore. Clearly the budget didn’t stretch to cover any quality action set pieces, with most of the film comprising pleasant strolls along forest paths, interspersed with a bit of running and the odd shoot-out. Rock-climbing scenes are clearly done in the studio and this, alongside some ropey green-screen work, betrays its modest roots. Less major, but just as irritating to those viewers who don’t like to be taken for stupid, are things like supposed military pros being brought down by ordinary Joes. Or cell phones that don’t work in the woods, while one of the baddies has no problem playing online chess. Inconsistent characterisation also grates, particularly with regards to Freeman as the film trundles towards its so called climax.

You may recall an adventure film from the late ‘80s called Deadly Pursuit (Shoot To Kill if you live on the western shore of the Atlantic), wherein Tom Berenger’s mountain man had to guide Sidney Poitier’s fed through the Pacific Northwest on the trail of a murderer. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a solid action film that worked because two committed actors made us care about their circumstance. The Contract completely fails to work because two disinterested actors go through the motions. Cusack looks thoroughly bored by the entire enterprise, not once bothering to invest anything in his scenes. Freeman fares only slightly better, his usual twinkle only surfacing once or twice, but they’re both hamstrung by the inherent weakness of the material. Why they’re involved at all will remain a mystery - maybe they just fancied a nice holiday in Bulgaria.

Curiously, though the film was shot using a Super 35 process (and indeed, the Region 1 release is 2.35:1), it’s presented here in a cropped 1.78:1 format. Still, this is no great cause for complaint as there’s not much to fault, with a sharp, clear picture throughout. Strong blacks are evident from the opening scene, with good depth and detail in the shadows. Indoor scenes showcase lovely smooth amber tones in Cusack’s house or the brilliant white of a hospital, all with excellent clarity and a complete absence of artefacts or edge enhancement. There’s some light grain in a dark cave scene, but this is a mostly rather good transfer.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is competent enough but fails to exploit its potential for long periods. An early car crash doesn’t make full use of the rears, but there’s still plenty punch, though not much heft lent by the sub. Dialogue is strong enough, but the rears are mostly left to handle ambient noise throughout such as rain, thunder or the odd bit of music. A scene featuring a machine gun being fired at a helicopter should be shaking the room, but it remains fairly tame, although there’s good movement between speakers when the helicopter crashes.

A 21 minute behind the scenes featurette is strictly EPK stuff and little more than a love-in for all concerned, as everyone eulogises everyone else. Cusack can barely conceal his boredom or his contempt, keeping his comments to the contractually obligated minimum, and the whole thing is little more than an opportunity for the producers to talk up the film. Weak.

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