October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

Jeff Bridges, Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Sam Elliott, Christian Slater

Much of the excitement missing from the current presidential campaign can be found in The Contender, a luridly entertaining political thriller. This isn’t a great film when stacked up against such classics of the genre as All the King’s Men or The Manchurian Candidate, but it is well-acted by a superior cast, sustains a crackling pace and couldn’t be timelier. And it sure beats watching Al Gore and George W. Bush exchange numbing details of prescription drug benefits.

Set very much in the combative present, Contender starts with an incumbent President (Bridges) naming a woman senator (Allen), Laine Hanson, to serve as Vice President after the death of the incumbent veep. Opposing her nomination is a powerful congressman (Oldman) in charge of her confirmation hearings. He sets to digging up dirt, including a photo purportedly showing Hanson as a 19-year-old college freshman sexually servicing fraternity brothers at a party. Hanson refuses to say whether she’s the woman in the picture, declaring that her sexual history is nobody’s business. “If I were a man,” she says, “no one would care how many sexual partners I’d had in college, and it shouldn’t be an issue for a woman.”

Written and directed by Rod Lurie, Contender ends up pulling its punches, though this doesn’t hurt its potboiler appeal. Allen shows enough steely resolve to carry any campaign, while Bridges makes the most charming of Presidents. There’s also excellent work by Oldman as Allen’s nemesis, Elliott as the prez’s top adviser and Slater as a Jimmy Stewart-like freshman legislator. (R)

Bottom Line: That’s the ticket

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