- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2000


Directors sometimes demonstrate impressive strides between first and second features. Unfortunately, this is not the case with writer-director Rod Lurie and his new movie, "The Contender."
Mr. Lurie, a former movie critic and radio personality in Los Angeles, got off to a good start with the doomsday thriller "Deterrence." But "The Contender" is a polemical rattletrap about deception, treachery and demagoguery in official Washington.
The futuristic global tension Mr. Lurie created in the static setting of "Deterrence," a Colorado diner, has evaporated in "The Contender."
In "Deterrence," he stacked the deck in a game of nuclear blackmail between a son of Saddam Hussein and a ruthlessly confident Jewish-American president played by Kevin Pollak. In "The Contender," Mr. Lurie cannot resist stacking the deck again for the president, now played by Jeff Bridges. Deck-stacking may be his defining weakness.
The new Lurie president is a second-term Democrat called Jackson Evans, who is intent on masterminding the confirmation of a nominee for the vice presidency after the death of his original second-in-command. Evans' choice is a senator from Ohio named Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Her chances supposedly are jeopardized by revelations of a college scandal, an orgy at which she was rumored to be obscenely participatory.
The disreputable yarn always suffers from some time-lag lameness. Laine, the daughter of a Republican governor (Philip Baker Hall) from Montana, switched parties somewhere along the line and won office. So where were the scandal stories back then?
Until the penultimate sequence, Mr. Lurie pretends that the coed Laine was guilty as sin. Laine may have been a freshman slut, but the director does not seem to think that is anybody's business.
Moreover, if she should backslide, that would not be anybody's business, either. Evans looks as if he might propose something of that sort when taking her aside for cigars and trashy sex talk.
Despite the suggestion that his heroine has nothing for which to apologize, Mr. Lurie tucks a weak ace up his sleeve: The scandal is groundless, easy to invalidate whenever he decides to brush it aside as an obstacle to all the progressive things that an Evans-Hanson regime would mean for the United States.
According to a ringing declaration by Laine, this would include abortion on demand, abolishment of capital punishment, confiscation of all privately owned guns, a strong military, fearless feminism and steadfast atheism. "I do go to church: My church is this chapel of democracy," she says.
Why the strong military? Well, Mr. Lurie was a West Point grad, which is almost unprecedented among movie critics and filmmakers, so he probably has a soft spot there.
"The Contender" reveals numerous soft spots in Mr. Lurie's powers of deception and oratory. Saturated with red herrings, the movie gets them biting with a literal red object, a runaway sports car. Gary Oldman's chances as Laine's fanatical adversary, a Republican congressman called Shelly Runyon, are accurately predicted by his Bozo the clown hair.
Whenever Mr. Lurie imagines that he has composed eloquent, intimidating speeches for his favored characters, illiteracy and stupidity run wild.
Laine really strikes out when trying to apologize for stealing a friend's spouse: "Love is an involuntary reflex, and I fell victim to it."
Common sense and elementary caution never creep up on Mr. Lurie while he's dragging "The Contender" from one preposterous and absent-minded episode to the next.
After "Deterrence," it looked as if Aaron Sorkin of "The American President" and "The West Wing" might have a smarty-pants rival in Mr. Lurie. So much for that prospect.TITLE: "The Contender"RATING: R (Occasional profanity and frequent sexual vulgarity, including allusions to an orgy, illustrated by flashback snippets; fleeting nudity and graphic violence; possibly offensive allusions to organized religion)CREDITS: Written and directed by Rod Lurie. Cinematography by Denis Maloney. Production design by Alexander Hammond. Costume design by Matthew Jacobsen. Editing by Michael Jablow. Music by Larry Groupe.RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes

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