Just as water always seeks its own level, some pics originally intended as multiplex fare wind up going directly to DVD. "The Contract," a formulaic thriller that never taxes the talents of toplined Morgan Freeman and John Cusack, actually managed a smattering of playdates in offshore theaters. But this underwhelming opus appears to be in its natural habitat on a TV screen, fully justifying the decision to fast-forward to vidstore shelves in the U.S. The allure of recognizable stars toiling in a popular genre may be enough to wrest modest coin from buyers and renters. After that, latenight cable beckons.

Just as water always seeks its own level, some pics originally intended as multiplex fare wind up going directly to DVD. “The Contract,” a formulaic thriller that never taxes the talents of toplined Morgan Freeman and John Cusack, actually managed a smattering of playdates in offshore theaters. But this underwhelming opus appears to be in its natural habitat on a TV screen, fully justifying the decision to fast-forward to vidstore shelves in the U.S. The allure of recognizable stars toiling in a popular genre may be enough to wrest modest coin from buyers and renters. After that, latenight cable beckons.

Freeman picks up an easy paycheck as Frank Carden, a government-trained assassin-turned-freelance “exterminator” who’s arrested by small-town Washington state cops after an inconvenient auto mishap. Federal agents arrive to transport the trigger man to a nearby metropolis.

But while the feds and their captive are motoring along a mountain road, members of Carden’s backup team attack. Carden flees during the ensuing melee — only to be quickly recaptured by cop-turned-schoolteacher Ray Keene (Cusack), who just happens to be hiking through the woods with his rebellious teen son (Jamie Anderson).

Scripters Stephen Katz and John Darrouzet don’t inspire great expectations with their contrived setup, so it can’t be said that what follows — pretty much your standard-issue, pursuit-through-the-wilderness melodrama — is, in the strictest sense of the term, disappointing. But it’s more than fair to complain about the plodding predictability of a by-the-numbers scenario that, 30 years ago, might have served as the blueprint for a routine TV movie. (Think Darren McGavin in Freeman’s role, then sub in Doug McClure for Cusack.)

Keene struggles to do the right thing — and, not incidentally, impress his surly offspring — while forcing Carden at gunpoint to hike through the woods and toward the authorities. Carden’s cronies dog their trail, occasionally firing automatic weapons (but never really hitting anyone of consequence) when they aren’t arguing among themselves. There is talk about a possible attempt to assassinate the U.S. president — who, of course, is scheduled to make a personal appearance in the area — and more talk about Washington spymasters who want to sever any ties to Carden. Indeed, there is a great deal of talk during “The Contract,” but not nearly enough action.

Helmer Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Tender Mercies”) does not transcend his material so much as dutifully push it forward as the pic plods through the Bulgarian countryside that doubles for Washington state locales. Lensing by the normally reliable Dante Spinotti (“Heat,” “L.A. Confidential”) is uninspired.

Cusack’s performance suggests a thoroughgoing professional on automatic pilot. Freeman appears to be enjoying himself a bit more, quite likely because Carden gets to toss off a sardonic wisecrack now and then. (Asked why he was arrested, he deadpans: “They caught me smoking in a restaurant. They’re pretty serious about that nowadays.”) Even so, in this particular context, it’s more than a little unsettling to see how persuasively Freeman conveys the no-sweat insouciance of a burn-out cynic who cheerfully admits that, idealism be damned, he’s only in it for the money.

The Contract

Direct to Video– U.S. - Germany

Production

A First Look Home Entertainment release (in U.S.) of a Millennium Films presentation of a Revelations Entertainment production, in association with Randall Emmett/George Furla (U.S.) and VIP Medienfonds 4 (Germany). Produced by Andreas Schmid, Les Weldon, Danny Lerner, Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett, George Furla. Executive producers, Lerner, Boaz Davidson, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Lori McCreary, Andy Grosch. Co-producers, Stephen Katz, John Darrouzet. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Screenplay, Stephen Katz, John Darrouzet.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Dante Spinotti; editor, Mark Warner; music, Normand Corbeil; production designer, Herbert Pinter; costume designer, Kate Healey; sound (Dolby), Vladimir Kaloyanov; assistant director, Rich Cowan; casting, Sheila Jaffe, Jeremy Zimmerman. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, Aug. 5, 2007. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Frank Carden - Morgan Freeman Ray Keene - John Cusack Chris Keene - Jamie Anderson Miles - Alice Krige Sandra - Megan Dodds Davis - Corey Johnson Turner - Jonathan Hyde Wainwright - Bill Smitrovich Royko - Anthony Warren Evans - Ned Bellamy

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