It seems more and more straight-to-video mediocrity arrives on Blu-ray shelves every day. Unfortunately, low-rent films of this sort aren't just the go-to source for shoestring budget sequels, post-grad film school projects, or failed productions, they're often the cinematic equivalent of dropping quick cash on a single round of an ever-risky game like roulette. But when a straight-to-video release features actors like John Cusack and Morgan Freeman, it immediately garners more credibility and attention -- after all, netting two heavyweights must be a good indicator that a film is at least worth a rent... right? Think again.
'The Contract' tells the story of down-on-his-luck single father Ray Keene (John Cusack), a forlorn realist who just so happens to be an ex-cop. In an attempt to reconnect with his young son Chris (Jamie Anderson), Ray arranges a camping trip to facilitate some good old fashioned father-son bonding. However, while hiking, the pair stumble across a dying federal agent and his prisoner, a hardened criminal named Frank (Morgan Freeman) who was being transported to a government facility before a rescue attempt sent his transport vehicle into a river. Before he dies, the agent gives Ray a gun and instructs him to bring Frank to the authorities, thus setting the rather predictable plot in motion. Ray has to contend with Frank, patch up his relationship with his son, avoid a team of mercenaries hot on their tail, baby-sit some new campers who join them along the way, and squeeze in time for a budding love interest. If that sounds like a lot for one film, take note that I only took the time to summarize the film's main plot points.
While you might think an A-level cast would be able to save a poorly conceived, clichéd screenplay from drifting off course, 'The Contract' proves that isn't always the case. To be fair, Cusack and Freeman do a commendable job with what they're given, but its not enough to credibly sell the film's characters or circumstances. Director Bruce Beresford ('Double Jeopardy,' 'Driving Miss Daisy') even fumbles key fundamentals like continuity, infusing the film with the tone and aesthetic of a cheap cable-television flick.
Rounding out the patchy experience are stale character beats (one of the villains continually pauses to play online chess... in the forest... on his laptop), aimless plot developments (the introduction of a newly single-woman for our single-father), and generally clumsy action scenes (a decent helicopter assault brought me out of my coma, but the car chases are the worst I've seen since the original 'Saw'). In fact, the only interesting moments revolve around Frank's unexpected kindness to Ray and his son. There's really a great film buried somewhere within this idea, it's just a shame that the entire story doesn't focus on this one aspect on a more regular basis.
Worst of all, 'The Contract' blatantly plucks scenes directly from other movies (the most transparent of which involves two mercs commandeering a helicopter -- a sequence that's nearly a shot for shot recreation of a similar moment in 'Cliffhanger'). This sort of scene-pillaging goes far beyond the realms of homage as it is repeated over and over again to the point of absurdity. At one point, I found myself having a mildly good time just identifying the better films that inspired a majority of the action scenes.
Alas, small pleasures like these are are the exception to the rule in 'The Contract.' Even hardcore fans of Cusack or Freeman's work are going to have a hard time finding much to enjoy with this one. A deflated dud in almost every way, the only viewers 'The Contract' will remotely appeal to are those with a fond sense of nostalgia for superficial '80s actioners.
At least the Blu-ray release of 'The Contract' delivers a solid technical presentation. Like its previously-released HD DVD counterpart, the quality of its 1080p/VC-1 transfer is a lot better than many other straight-to-video BDs. Colors are rich, blacks are inky, and the film has a nice three dimensional appearance despite its inconsistent grain levels. Detail is impeccable and sharp enough to see every pore, hair, and leaf on the screen. There's a bit of noise that pops up in a handful of nighttime scenes (watch the shots of the forest as Cusack stares out of the cabin window near the end of the film), but it isn't prevalent enough to be a distraction. In fact, at first glance, 'The Contract' seems to be doing everything right.
Unfortunately, there are a few directorial decisions that hinder the overall impact of the transfer. The film was shot using a variety of different stocks and lighting techniques, leading to a somewhat disjointed visual experience. Some scenes suffer from overblown contrast, a few are underexposed, and others are bland and flat. I suspect the technical transfer isn't to blame for these shortcomings but, nevertheless, there are some rather spotty scenes that detract from an otherwise impressive presentation.
Even though the Blu-ray edition of 'The Contract' improves upon the film's HD DVD release by adding a decent Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track, the audio package still fails to overcome the limitations of a low budget production and uninspired sound design. So what's good about the mix? Dialogue is crisp and nicely prioritized (even during the most chaotic action sequences), LFE support is boomy and natural, and dynamics aren't squashed or hampered by an at-times two-dimensional soundfield. Unfortunately, there's not much else to get too excited about.
Effects and acoustic support generally sound artificial, gunfire and explosions clang about the soundscape as if they were taken from a consumer-level effects CD, and ambiance is reduced to obvious cracks and crackles that are trapped in the rear channels alone. Most noticeably, channel movement is generic and pans slap from one speaker to the next without any subtlety or realism. While not a complete disaster, each of these issues made it progressively harder for me to immerse myself in the track as the film wore on.
The only significant standard feature that appears on this version of 'The Contract' (as well as on the film's DVD and HD DVD releases) is "Inside the Contract," a twenty-minute, standard definition EPK that is nothing more than a trite talking-heads featurette. It includes interviews with key members of the cast and crew, behind-the-scenes footage, and a few anecdotes about the challenges the film faced from conception to implementation. Sadly, while Freeman and Cusack pop up for a quick chat, their overwhelming absence suggests they were well aware of how weak the movie was going to be.
Don't be fooled by the appearance of John Cusack and Morgan Freeman on 'The Contract's box art -- even two actors of their caliber can't save this drivel. To my dismay, the disc doesn't fare much better. The Blu-ray edition's video transfer is surprisingly good for a straight-to-video release, but its TrueHD audio is a disappointment and its supplemental package is an anemic waste of time. If you absolutely can't resist the lure of two classy actors like Cusack and Freeman in the same film, be sure to give this one a rent before you consider a purchase... you'll thank me for it.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.