Black Sea, the latest in a long line of submarine thrillers, has the ragged feel of a B movie, not necessarily a bad thing. Once you give up the idea that you’re watching another over-hyped thriller, you can relax and enjoy the tension that inevitably builds when men — especially greedy men — are jammed into cramped spaces.
Populated by unwashed Russian and British men on a treasure hunt, Black Sea unapologetically dives into action, ratcheting up pressure as the crew faces danger: from the sea and from one another.
R for language throughout, some graphic images and violence
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Led by a disaffected, unemployed submariner (Jude Law), these crew members bicker, allow greed to conquer their better impulses and deal with a steady stream of life-threatening situations.
The goal: To retrieve a fortune in Nazi gold from a German U-Boat that has been languishing at the bottom of the sea since the end of World War II.
Law’s Robinson learns about the treasure from a former shipmate. He then meets with an American (Scoot McNairy) who works for a wealthy tycoon who agrees to finance the mission for 40 percent of the haul.
Law’s Robinson accepts the terms, but champions equality among the men: He insists that the crew divide its share of the loot equally.
In a movie that takes a dim, genre-appropriate view of human nature, it’s hardly surprising that some of the crew members think they deserve bigger shares than others.
It’s possible to regard the movie’s submarine as another character. A rusty wreck of a Russian vessel, the sub had been left to rot off the Crimean coast. It has the look of a low-tech, submersible boiler room.
The Russian sailors are jumpy from the outset. They object to the fact that Law’s Robinson has brought an inexperienced young man (Bobby Schofield) on board. The Russians think the 18-year-old is bad luck because they believe (incorrectly) that he’s a virgin. He is, of course, a novice at sea.
Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void) efficiently builds tension, particularly in a sequence in which several crew members leave the sub to retrieve a drive-shaft from an abandoned U-boat. This dangerous maneuver is the sub’s only hope of getting off the bottom, where it has unceremoniously crashed.
Why isn’t Black Sea a perfect deep-sea saga?
Several reasons: Anyone familiar with Ben Mendelsohn, who plays one of the crew members, knows that this edgy Australian actor has cornered the market on loose-cannon characters. To make the matters even more obvious, we often see Mendelsohn’s Fraser toying with a knife.
Put another way, the movie can’t help but telegraph the moment when Fraser will turn violent.
That bit of predictability aside, the screenplay by Dennis Kelly is burdened by occasional sprays of lame dialogue, and it’s not easy to accept Robinson’s transition from a down-and-out working man to a kind of crazed Captain Ahab.
About that working-man angle: Black Sea isn’t as convincing as a lower-class anthem as it is as a cinematic pressure cooker, but it does take a swing at working-class resentment.
At the outset, Robinson loses his job on a salvage submarine. His 20-year devotion to a single company cost him his wife (Jodie Whittaker) and young son. Penniless and put upon, he sees himself as a victim of bankers and corporate types made rich by working stiffs who ultimately are played for suckers.
OK, so Black Sea isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. Darkly hued and making the most of the sub’s claustrophobic chambers, Black Sea offers the kind of thrills that arrive coated with grease, sweat and, of course, desperation.