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MOVIE REVIEW

'Into the Blue' has unexpected depths

Regarding Paul Walker and Jessica Alba: How do you get a decent performance from a wood plank and a helium balloon? Amazingly, John Stockwell knows: Just add water.

Stockwell's ''Into the Blue" is the most improbable of movies, a comic thriller set in the Bahamas in which Walker and Alba bare enough flesh to seduce us into thinking they've bared pieces of their souls.

They play a couple who gets paid to tool around in the ocean. He's Jared, a diving instructor; she's Sam, a woman who handles the sharks at a local resort. And after their greasy buddy, Bryce (Scott Caan), arrives with the salty gold digger (Ashley Scott) he picked up hours before, Jared and Sam get tangled up with the local drug lord who wants the bricks of powder removed from a plane that crashed into the ocean. Do the divers risk their lives to keep a profitable brick or two? Do they walk away as the upright Sam suggests?

This all sounds typical, and with any young Hollywood hack, Matt Johnson's script would have felt that way, too: 80 rushed minutes of drug pirates, guns, and booty. But somebody at the movie studio has let Stockwell and his two editors take their time. ''Into the Blue" is as much a mesmerizing aquatic expedition as it is a reasonably suspenseful action adventure. The movie contains as many suggestive shots of stingrays, tropical fish, and hungry sharks as it does of Alba or Scott in their bikinis. And Walker is a revelation, gliding like a torpedo from one scene to the next. I realize HBO's ''Entourage" meant its ''Aquaman" movie as a gag, but Walker coolly suggests that it doesn't have to be.

Stockwell lets the Bahamian locations and the North Atlantic Ocean call out to you. The camera zooms down a waterslide, and there are numerous shots of the cast submerged in Caribbean waters blue enough to suggest a dip in Elijah Wood's eyes. All the snorkeling, scuba diving, breath holding, and emergency mouth-to-mouth is sexy. Yet this isn't the standard travel brochure or a Coppertone ad, either. Jared and Sam aren't tourists, at least not anymore. The black locals treat them like members of the community. And the movie catches enough regional color to suggest a bustling awareness that the island is bigger and busier than two American lovebirds. (A buddy of Jared's complains, ''My baby mama harass me for a new weave!")

Stockwell even proves himself amphibious, taking us on one electric trip to a nightclub, where we meet another tremendous specimen: Tyson Beckford, as a neighborhood bigwig and every bit the land shark, with a fat Mohawk serving as his dorsal fin. The story thickens later with a dirty, hairier, but no less alluring Josh Brolin throwing villainous shade.

If we're to care about the curves in the plot, we have to believe that Jared and Sam are truly in love. To this end, Stockwell, just as he did with Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez in the amazing ''Crazy/Beautiful," furnishes us with make-out sessions between Walker and Alba, where the kisses are deep and physical, not the ghastly locking of gears we usually get between two actors. Sam's disappointment with Jared's vanishing scruples feels real. So does his eventual shame at having let her down.

What makes Walker and Alba so pleasurable to watch here -- and it takes a decently made movie to reveal this -- is that neither appears to be a narcissist. They comes alive as the movie deepens. Casting them among showboats like Caan, Brolin, Beckford, and Scott is shrewd: By comparison, Walker and Alba seem like innocent, rather compelling eye candy. And in John Stockwell, they've finally found their Willy Wonka.

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