One of the rare pleasures of something like Netflix, because of its ceaseless attempts to grab public attention with something ‘new’ is managing to find the older films on the platform worth watching. Well, I say ‘old’, but in the case of The Contract, which I stumbled upon by chance/vagaries of the Netflix algorithms, I have to wonder what qualifies as old: is 2006 as ancient as current-centric platforms like Netflix might suggest, and where does that leave all the films of the 1970s and (especially) the 1980s that I grew up with? Bad enough working with colleagues who weren’t even born when I was a lad in the Odeon Cinema watching Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As for films of the 1940s or 1950s…
Anyway, maybe I’m just too forgiving but The Contract proved something of a surprise. Not just that it was actually better than I’d expected (you know, set your sights low enough and anything can surprise), but also that it was a film I’d never heard of, despite featuring both Morgan Freeman and John Cusack (particularly the latter, as he’s one of my wife Claire’s favourite actors). It was directed by Bruce Beresford, and seeing his name got my attention as I remembered his Driving Miss Daisy (another Morgan Freeman vehicle (sic)) which was a big success at the time, albeit possibly quite forgotten today, as films tend to be, attention-spans such as they are. Mind, I’d actually mistakenly thought Beresford had directed Harry and the Hendersons but it turns out I was wrong on that score, proving that my memory is getting fuzzy.
The Contract was hardly going to set the cinematic world afire back when it came out in 2006, and indeed it was actually a straight to video release in most markets, but its a reasonably solid effort, predictable in places but none the worse for that- there is something rather comforting watching something like this, a fairly low-key drama/thriller depicting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Well, maybe not all that ordinary, but this is Hollywood. I guess this is the kind of mundane film that oddly ages quite well considering the over-the-top, noisy extravaganzas we tend to get these days.
Cusack plays Ray, a widower who has a fractious relationship with his teenage son, Chris (Jamie Anderson) and takes him on a hiking trip out in the woods to try fix their issues. Meanwhile, following a chance car accident assassin Frank Carden (Freeman) has been caught by the FBI whilst recovering in hospital and is being transported to headquarters when Frank’s hitmen associates try to free him. The attempt goes astray, the car Frank is being driven in plunges off the road into a river sweeping him downstream to where Ray and Chris are hiking. The FBI agent handcuffed to Frank dies, but fortunately not before telling Ray who he and Frank are and the need to get Frank to the authorities. Frank’s team, of course, are soon on the chase.
The narrative is spoiled by a few of the usual tropes- Ray is a small-town teacher now but he used to be a cop, so is better qualified than might be expected to protect his son, mind Frank’s attempts to abscond and thwart the mercenaries on their trail, and the film can’t avoid providing a young romantic interest for Ray when they stumble upon a young couple and the annoying boyfriend catches a bullet to remind us that Frank’s team aren’t completely useless. A welcome treat is Alice Krige, who plays a duplicitous Intelligence chief with an agenda that requires Frank to be killed rather than possibly reveal agency plots about a contract on a reclusive billionaire- its all very daft but kind of fun. Its one of those films in which nobody’s wardrobe ever seems to get dirty or creased despite days spent in the wilds (Frank’s tailored outfit is practically the stuff of sorcery). Freeman, of course is quite brilliant, effortlessly playing this cold assassin with a moral compass; his natural charisma assures us he’ll do the right thing eventually (especially when he realises his boss has turned on him and he’s now a target). Its almost bewildering how Frank’s team of mercenaries are oddly inept rather than the coldly ruthless killers they purport to be, but that’s part of the fun of the film. Its very much a Sunday afternoon film, really, and possibly none the worst for that- but yeah, maybe I’m too forgiving. I’ve seen much worse.