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THE CONTENDER

Review by Andrew Manning (10/00)

Release: 2000, DreamWorks
Starring: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliott
Director: Rod Lurie
MPAA Rating: [R] language, sexuality
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 126 minutes


Sometimes you can assassinate a leader without firing a shot...



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SUMMARY

When the sitting Vice President dies, the President (Bridges) appoints a replacement (Allen). But a political opponent (Oldman) in charge of approving the new appointee drudges up a history of sexual misconduct on her part, threatening to destroy her political career and tarnish the reputation of the current administration.

THE SUDDEN RUNDOWN

An outstanding political thriller that is thoroughly engaging--except for its ridiculous conclusion.

WHAT'S GOOD

If anything can be said for DreamWorks, it's that they have impeccable timing. With the U.S. Presidential elections in full swing, there's no better time to release this movie about political schisms warring with each other. While it's basically an ensemble story, The Contender is largely the tale of Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) and his quest to destroy the political career of Vice Presidential appointee Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Runyon is an idealistic, if not embittered, man who wholeheartedly believes Hanson is not fit for the office of Vice President, and as head of the committee that is to approve her position, he does everything within his power to destroy her.

Gary Oldman turns in a remarkable performance here. In fact, it was such a transformation in looks and demeanor for him that I didn't even acknowledge the character as Oldman throughout the movie. For me, this is high praise considering how underwhelmed I was by his presence in Romeo Is Bleeding, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Air Force One, and Lost in Space. Runyon is a wholly interesting character, and what makes him such a great villain is that he's never an obvious villain. Oldman depicts him as a man with an agenda and strong moral beliefs, who is willing to do anything to defend those beliefs. And as we've always said here at Radio Free Entertainment, the best film villains are the ones who are dangerous enough to believe their actions are righteously justified. That conflict is what makes them more interesting than the character who is 100% evil.

Jeff Bridges is passable as the President, but his best contribution to the movie is comedy. His character is obsessed with the Presidential luxury of having a chef on-call 24 hours a day, and he exploits it to no limit, ordering dishes with ridiculously specific provisions just because he can. For example, he calls his chef on a whim and orders kung-pao chicken, "but with walnuts instead of peanuts." When he meets with Christian Slater's character, he walks into the room with a giant shark-steak sandwich, asking, "Do you know what this is? Shark-steak. F*cking shark-steak!"

With his evil Grinch-like grin, Sam Elliott works out very well as a political aide trying to counter Runyon's slanderous remarks with slander of his own. When his researchers come up with questionable SEC records in Runyon's history, he reprimands them with, "Stocks! I want something embarrassing, something sexual!" Another nice touch is Elliott's assertation that sleaze must be fought with sleaze, and that his party is no better than that of the opposition's.

Joan Allen is solid, and her confrontations with Oldman are among the best moments of the film. Their showdowns play out like highly spirited political debates, filmed CNN-style for added realism. Runyon begins as a cordial individual, but as his accusations and assaults on Hanson's moral character start to mount, it becomes clear just how ruthless he really is.

The result is a giant political thriller with interesting characters and a story that keeps your attention from beginning to end. While some of the speeches are heavy-handed, most of the important ones ring of a certain patriotism.


WHAT'S BAD

It's really sad that The Contender has such a proposterous ending, because otherwise it would be one of the best movies of the year. I obviously can't give it away this early in the game, but let's just say it's completely unrealistic--it involves a politician being so honest that they're willing to ruin themselves for their ideals, and I find that highly unbelievable in a field where deception and pandering are some of the cornerstones of the career. I'll elaborate on this in greater detail in a few months, after everyone has had a chance to see the movie.

Also unsettling is how The Contender deteriorates into a chess game of orchestrated backstabbing. Instead of maintaining its straitforward tone of Runyon vs. Hanson, it expands into a foolish political dance where everyone acts out of spite--and for some reason, it's all right!

Perhaps the most idiotic leap in character is Jeff Bridges' President Evans, and how he instantly goes from a scatter-brained moron to the most eloquent speaker of history, rallying the entire contry with a few well-chosen words.

These major flaws ruined a perfectly good movie, and even made my stomach churn at moments. However, the plus side is that these awful plot developments all came quickly, and only in the last 20 minutes, thus containing the worst in a convenient, dismissable package. With that disregarded, the rest of The Contender remains watchable, interesting, and intelligent.


Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
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