From the jarring opening title credits, underscored by a driving version of "Ring of Fire" sung by the bizarre duo of Jeff Bridges and Kim Carnes, The Contender is one odd fish. Part snappy political drama, part melodramatic soaper, and part long-winded morality tale, the film is almost done in by writer/director Rod Lurie's frequently bombastic script and annoying, roaming camera, but it's held together by some knockout performances.
Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) finds himself in need of a new vice president, as the movie begins with an eerily Chappaquiddick-like accident that kills the veep. When Evans' first selection to replace him falls through, he turns to Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen, in a typically riveting performance). Determined to cement his legacy by placing the first woman in the VP seat, Evans and his team press ahead into history. They are faced with bitter opposition: powerful Republican Rep. Sheldon "Shelly" Runyon (Gary Oldman, in a brilliant performance) and freshman GOP Rep. Reginald Webster (an unusually tepid Christian Slater). When Hanson is accused of sexual impropriety, the opposition sharpens their knives with glee.
Loaded with delectable potential, The Contender yearns to take its place with the likes of All the President's Men, but falls far short with its first half-hour bogged down by endless talk. Lurie (Deterrence) dedicates the film to his daughter, supposedly because it features a strong portrait of a woman with indomitable character. Yet despite Allen's steely portrayal, the director doesn't seem able to trust the complexities of his characters or his narrative, deflating the climax with a sappy, implausible finish, replete with soaring crescendos. Lurie also has picked up an all-too-common directorial habit: Anticipating the film's future on the small screen, he shoots primarily in closeup, slowing the movie to a crawl. Lurie puts his own spin (literally) on the closeup shot by swinging his camera back and forth ad nauseam.
The Contender does have a saving grace in its juicy performances. Sparks fly when Hanson testifies before Runyon's Congressional committee, but the film's most explosive scene is a deceptively quiet but vitriolic luncheon between the two adversaries that should get some Academy members' notice.