Another Marvel adventure. Another vampire flick. Another feature-length chunk of my life spent watching Jared Leto. There was literally nothing about the prospect of Morbius I was looking forward to – except finally getting the experience over with, given that we've been seeing trailers for this thing for more than two years now. (For reasons no longer requiring explanation, the film's release was bumped from its planned opening in July of 2020, then bumped again, and again, and again … .) So I suppose it's almost a compliment to say that while I didn't enjoy director Daniel Espinosa's largely dull, grossly formulaic comic-book yarn, I didn't actively detest it, either. The first half-hour is fairly decent, and Leto is less unbearable than he's been of late, and Matt Smith appears to be having some fun with his über-villain debauchery. Plus, in our era of repeatedly bloated superhero epics, Espinosa's origin story clocks in at a tidy 104 minutes. Granted, it still felt a full hour longer than Matt Reeves' three-hour The Batman, but I'll take my perks where I can find them.
Coincidentally, Morbius is about a Bat Man, too – or rather, about Nobel Prize-rejecting scientist Michael Morbius, who discovers a cure to his rare blood disease in a serum that employs the DNA of vampire bats. While this cure does come with a significant drawback considering Morbius' newfound taste for human blood, it also gives him super-strength, speed, agility, and washboard abs – and the benefits, eventually, are really enjoyed by Morbius' surrogate brother Milo, who also downs the serum but is unruffled by his burgeoning dietary urges. That's pretty much it, plot-wise, and also pretty much character-wise, with the exceptions of Morbius' mentor (Jared Harris), his co-worker/girlfriend (Adria Arjona), a pair of FBI agents (Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal), and the obligatory Marvel alum whose future importance is teased in a pair of credit cookies. No, I won't Spoiler the fun by telling you who it is. Okay, fine. It's Michael Keaton's Adrian “Vulture” Toomes from Spider-Man: Homecoming. We saw him in the Morbius trailer more than two years ago.
Because the narrative is so tediously simple and the cast list could effectively fit on a cocktail napkin, I had more time than usual to get hung up on nitpicky details. Like that fluorescent cylinder of flying, shrieking vampire bats stationed in Morbius' lab. Do those creatures ever get fed? Or how about the rejuvenated Michael's and Milo's habit of bouncing from place to place and leaving smoky trails of color in their wake? Did that miraculous serum also involve the DNA of the X-Men's Nightcrawler or Harry Potter's Death Eaters? There's so little actually going on in Espinosa's movie that head-scratchers such as these are the only elements that truly work your mind, and the action sequences aren't exciting or novel enough to work your gut. This lumpy, mostly lifeless outing just sits there, and while none of it is offensive, you know a superhero entertainment – in this case, a superantihero entertainment – is in trouble when its one nod to originality and surprise comes from an out-of-the-blue reference to Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook.
But hey – I made it through, and it was painless enough. During its first 30 minutes, in truth, the movie is even close to sweet, presenting us with touching flashbacks that explore the roots of Michael's and Milo's childhood friendship, and, even better, treating us to scenes between Leto's Michael and Smith's Milo that allow the actors to share some relaxed, joshing, even heartfelt chemistry. It's not overstating things to say that, cinematically, Smith is the best thing to happen to Leto since Matthew McConaughey, and it pained me that Morbius had to turn into a disposable, retrograde genre toss-off after it was showing such promise as a middle-aged-buddy dramedy. But Marvel's gonna Marvel. I just wish, this time around, more energy had been directed toward marveling us.
Among clichéd phrases that routinely pop up in action flicks, I think “There's only one way this can end” might be the one that bothers me most, because it nearly always sounds like a veiled, preemptive apology: “Yeah, we couldn't come up with a better ending than the one you're all predicting, so let's just go with that.” And hearing Chris Pine utter that sentiment toward the finale of The Contractor depressed me more than usual, because up until its last 15 minutes, director Tarik Saleh's and screenwriter J.P. Davis' dramatic thriller had not only been engaging and surprising, but disarmingly moving.
Though the film's generic title suggests the gazillionth revenge saga to feature Liam Neeson and a gun, Saleh's offering is actually a thoughtful, tense tale of betrayal that sends a pair of injured, ex-military best friends (Pine and Ben Foster) to Berlin to act as well-paid mercenary soldiers, their mission being the assassination of a scientist for his purported engineering of bio-weapons. It turns out that's not remotely the mission's ultimate goal. (Considering the plan was initiated by Kiefer Sutherland, we probably shouldn't have expected it to be.) But while we, like the characters themselves, don't yet know what these guys have gotten themselves into, we certainly know how they got there, because Saleh and Davis do a subtly marvelous job of detailing how crippling financial and emotional hardships led to these wounded warriors effectively selling their souls for cash.
The film's poster is one of those stock images of its star posing soulfully in front of an American flag – an image that, baity though it is, tells potential ticket-buyers nothing. Yet the sharp dialogue, loaded silences, and haunting weight of Pine's and Foster's expressions and bearing tell you everything, and I was fully invested even before Saleh came through with his nerve-racking set pieces and preposterous yet effectively juicy Bourne-esque escapes and cat-and-mouse staging. (There's also an outstanding small role for Eddie Marsan as a mysterious safe-house proprietor.) Beautifully shot by cinematographer Pierre Aim and boasting rapport between the leads to match their teamwork in Hell or High Water, the mostly first-rate The Contractor is a pretty great time. It might be an even better one if you choose to stop watching 15 minutes before the closing credits. Don't worry about missing anything. There's only one way this can end.