Jude Law has reached a phase of his career where he can no longer rely on his rakish smile and piercing blue eyes. He may have brandished the matinee idol looks 10 years ago but with his lanky frame and creepy tabloid-courting off-screen antics, true stardom never knocked. As the years took their toll, Law’s pretty visage has given away to a sullen, heavier, slightly balding actor more home in parts meant for burly leading men like Russell Crowe. In some ways, he’s become the kind of actor his younger self would have aspired to be: the capital S serious one. Roles in films like Anna Karenina, Contagion, Side Effects, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and more recently in Dom Hemingway have only showcased that capital serious actorly ambition. He brings more of that to the table in Kevin Macdonald’s pulpier than a bag of oranges high sea submarine thriller Black Sea.
Law plays Robinson, a blue-collar submarine captain who’s been sacked by his ocean salvage company after 11 years of service. Left without a pension, the perpetually drunk Robinson contemplates a scheme of vengeance at a bar with his buddies when one of them gives him an idea for something even better. During the height of World War II, the Russians paid the Nazis millions in gold bullion to avoid a conflict. But the Nazi U-Boat carrying the gold never arrived in Germany, having been sunk in the Black Sea. That treasure-filled U-Boat still lies at the bottom of the sea today, waiting for some lucky group of scavengers to scoop it up.
Figuring this to be his one way ticket out, Robinson sets up a deal with a wealthy moneyman and his slimy American lawyer (Scoot McNairy) to bankroll a mission to salvage the gold from under the noses of the Russian navy patrolling the sea by using an old submarine and a crew of British and Russian lowlifes to power it. But when you put a bunch of greedy, desperate and short-circuited ex-cons in a tiny claustrophobic rust bucket of a sub for more than a day, tempers are bound to flare—especially when one of the cons is a loose cannon psychopath played by, who else, Ben Mendelsohn. It seems that Robinson’s trust in his men is more misguided than the mission itself.
With a cast choke-full of grizzled character actors, and a The Treasure of Sierra Madre-meets-Das Boot plot that involves buried treasure, Nazis, pirates, undersea expeditions, and even cannibalism, Black Sea teems with ingredients for a pulse-pounding thriller. So why doesn’t it amount to anything more than a couple of strongly executed set-pieces? Director Kevin Macdonald, whose previous efforts include The Last King of Scotland, the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September as well as the underrated State of Play, has established himself as a strong storyteller with an eye for gritty realism. Black Sea showcases plenty of that grit but Macdonald’s ultra-serious approach to what is supposed to be pulpy material drains it off its fun.
There’s also the problem of its characters that are, sorry to say, taken straight out of the stereotype dictionary. For example, there’s the aforementioned psychopath (Mendelsohn), the slimy American lawyer (McNairy), the cool-headed Russian (Konstantin Khabenskiy), the soft-spoken right-hand man (Grigoriy Dobrygin), the kid (Bobby Schofield), the muscle man (Sergey Puskepalis) etc… Each of these guys come attached with their clichéd back story: One wants to start over, another is a new father, etc. When you know exactly how each character is going to react long before they do, there’s little to look forward to. Even Robinson, who Law milks for every ounce, barely registers as a character. There’s an attempt by screenwriter Dennis Kelly to give Robinson heft by introducing a subplot revolving around his estranged wife and son but it comes off as tacked on instead of an organic addition to the story.
Now there are plenty of movies that get by in spite of issues exactly like these (The gleeful Fast and the Furious movies are an example), and for a good chunk of its running time, Black Sea gets by on the strength of Macdonald’s direction prowess. The British-born filmmaker makes creative use of the cramped single-location setting with inventive framing techniques that give the film an eerily claustrophobic aura. Additionally, his handling of a couple of standoffs between the men crackles with tension. So does the film’s best scene, a nail-biting set-piece involving three men walking outside the submarine on the fragile ocean floor. Even the performers, in particular Law and Mendelsohn, are game, lending the film the required edge it needs.
But where Black Sea flounders is in its insistence on smashing you over the head with a groan-inducing 1% vs. the 99% message—a theme that has been explored in everything from The Dark Knight Rises to asinine Brett Ratner comedies. That, plus the padded running time—which finds the crew facing an increasingly preposterous series of setbacks during its last act—nullifies a lot of the goodwill Macdonald and his actors earn from the audience prior to that. It’s a disappointment because considering the promise of its cast, crew and story, Black Sea could have been much more than a B-grade thriller about a bunch of idiots fighting in a submarine.
Running time: 114 minutes
Companies: Focus Features
Rating: R for language throughout, some graphic images and violence