You'd think that with stars like Morgan Freeman and John Cusack and a superb action director like Bruce Beresford at the helm that The Contract would have entertainment quotient galore. And for the first 30 minutes or so, as the film's setup is getting underway, you'd be right. We have Cusack as a recently widowed father trying to regain the trust of his errant son, and Freeman in an unusual villain role as an erudite and suave gentleman who just happens to be a hired hitman. Unfortunately, the film soon devolves into a sort of Cliffhanger-lite, with Cusack and son intersecting with Freeman in the wild woods of Washington State. Freeman, who has been caught and is being transported to certain justice, manages to get a message to his hit squad, who attempt to engineer a rescue which goes somewhat awry, leaving Freeman floating down a river in handcuffs. Meanwhile, Cusack has decided some bonding time with his pot-smoking son might be managed by a camping trip. And so Cusack and son and Freeman all end up in the woods, with Cusack attempting to get Freeman back to the authorities while also attempting to maintain control of his punk kid. What begins promisingly quickly crumbles into stereotype and cliché, albeit cliché with some beautiful scenery and great staging by the always reliable Beresford.
Beresford, who directed Freeman to a well-deserved Oscar nomination in Driving Miss Daisy, has always been able to craft films with a palpable feeling for time and place. Such "intimate epics" as Breaker Morant show Beresford's unique style, providing enough cultural and even geographical context in which to understand the characters, while focusing on the characters themselves, quite often to stupendous results. Beresford at least has the geographical part down pat in this film, which is filled with beautiful Bulgarian vistas subbing for the Pacific Northwest. Where he's let down immeasurably is with the trite (beyond trite at points) screenplay, which has various characters doing stupid things for no other reason than that is putatively moves the plot along another notch or two.
What's especially distressing about The Contract is that it starts off so strongly, and even has intermittently compelling sequences even after things begin to fall off a cliff (literally I should add, though I won't totally post any spoilers here). Beresford handles the introduction of all the characters exceedingly well, perfectly playing off the audience's expectations that Freeman usually is the "good guy," so that when a hit is enforced in an incredibly graphic manner, it leaves you momentarily breathless. The first scenes between Cusack and his son (the occasionally annoying Jamie Anderson) are also fairly well handled, if not quite as visceral as the Freeman segments. And when a twist or two is revealed after the trio finds themselves lost in the forest, with Freeman's ex-military co-horts giving chase, even that is relatively surprising (at least in the context of an otherwise by the numbers screenplay).
When you hear Cusack asking Anderson "Are you sure we don't need that map?," it's one of those 'throw the shoe through the television' moments, not only because you know it portends ridiculous consequences down the path (so to speak), but that the same plot element could have been handled much more artfully. Why not have them bring a map and then lose it when they're attempting to scale a cliff, for instance? The film also tries to develop a sort of mutual Stockholm Syndrome between Cusack and Freeman at least (Anderson is there mostly to get in harm's way, unfortunately), with each of them reaching a sort of uneasy alliance as they forge through the wilderness. It's all been seen before, and usually in a better handled way. With bickering villains (including one who's not all he seems, of course) bringing up the rear, you know you're in for a climactic showdown, which happens in a ridiculously over the top sequence involving a helicopter (again somewhat reminiscent of the much superior Cliffhanger).
What saves The Contract from being a total waste is Beresford's total control of his directorial environment. Unusual angles and some sweeping crane and tracking shots keep the film visually engaging even while the screenplay stutters and slobbers all over itself. Freeman is his usual understated and elegant self, playing well against type, and having some decent if not overwhelmingly brilliant interactions with Cusack. Cusack is also reliably understated here, although he's called upon to get absurdly hysterical when Anderson does one stupid thing after another. Alice Krige is also on hand as a shady government operative who may be pulling strings that no one is really aware of until it's too late. The performances are all fine, if only they had better material with which to work.
While The Contract is certainly heads and shoulders above most of its straight to video kin, there's a reason this ostensibly well-budgeted and name-casted feature was consigned to the dustbin of "never theatrically released" history. It's a rare misfire for Beresford, one of my favorite directors, and one who is routinely and sadly underappreciated. It may have been a "paycheck" movie for him and his stars, but there are glimmers here that prove that it could have been much more with a little rewriting.