When I hear the term “straight-to-DVD”, I automatically think of some low-budget film with cheesy special effects and unknown actors. I certainly don’t imagine that a $25 million project starring Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman and John Cusack would suffer the straight-to-DVD fate, but that’s precisely what happened with their 2006 film The Contract.
Of course, I didn’t know all of this before I rented the last weekend; I just assumed that I had somehow overlooked the movie when it played in theaters. It wasn’t until I started watching this plodding, uneventful “thriller” that I realized there was something off about the whole thing.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Freeman stars as contract killer Frank Carden. We meet him as he’s organizing his henchmen for another job, this one in Washington state. Carden has a perfect record of completed kills, and has managed to elude the police for his entire career — that is, until he gets into a freak car accident while completing Phase One of the new job. He’s taken to the hospital, and when the local police identify him through his prints, into custody.
We also meet Ray Keene (Cusack), a recently widowed father who feels that his teenage son Chris (Jamie Anderson) is slipping away. Chris blew off his baseball game and was instead picked up by the cops for smoking pot. Ray, an ex-cop himself, realizes that he’s got to reach out to Chris before it’s too late, so he proposes that they go on a camping trip. It’s not Ray’s thing, but Chris loves the outdoors. The boy accepts.
The lives of these characters intersect when Frank’s associates organize a rescue mission to break him out of custody while being transported. The attempt goes terribly wrong, and the vehicle carrying Frank plunges into a river after running off the road. Frank and a U.S. Marshall are pulled out of the water by Ray and Chris, who happen to be hiking in the same area.
The marshall uses his last breath to tell Ray that Frank is a prisoner. After the marshall dies, Frank hints that it would be in Ray’s best interest to just let him go. Frank has friends coming after him, and if Ray and Chris get in the way, they’ll both be killed. Ray doesn’t go for this, however, and decides that he will watch over Frank until the authorities arrive. The problem is, there’s no cellular service where they are, so they have to start walking back.
The rest of the film then deals with Ray and Chris trying to bring Frank in while being chased by the bad guys. Frank is surprisingly compliant the whole time, and while Ray and Chris encounter a few close calls along the way, there aren’t really any totally tense moments where their lives are in danger.
My Reaction: Like I said, I was surprised that anything starring Morgan Freeman and John Cusack could go straight to DVD, but after actually watching The Contract, I can see the reasoning. This movie was pretty bad.
One problem I had with the film was that there was no suspense at all. I never got the sense that Frank was a brutal killer, so I never felt that he would harm either Ray or Chris. Sure, there was a half-hearted fistfight in the middle there, but obviously nothing came of it. As a result, I was pretty bored as I just waited for the inevitable conclusion to arrive — with both Ray and Chris intact, of course.
Another problem I had with the film was that I couldn’t understand Ray’s motivation here. Why did he have to bring Frank in? I think 99 out of 100 parents in his shoes would have simply refused to get involved with the situation after discovering that Frank was a contract killer (I know I would have).
I realize that there wouldn’t be a movie if Ray just gave up, so I don’t mind that he stuck it out. What I do mind is that the screenwriter didn’t bother giving the audience a strong enough reason to believe that Ray would go through with the mission. Sorry, but wanting to impress his kid was not enough of a reason for an otherwise ordinary guy to turn into Rambo all of a sudden.
Finally, I thought the entire script was rather uninspired. It’s as though the writer followed a by-the-numbers template, merely plugging his characters’ names into scenes and scenarios that have been done a thousand times before in cinema.
Overall, The Contract was definitely a below-average effort that deserved its straight-to-DVD fate. I give it 2 stars out of 5, and recommend that you skip it despite the fact that Freeman and Cusack are in it.