The submarine film, typically entrenched within the confines of a World War II drama, often magnifies claustrophobic pessimism (as in Wolfgang Peterson’s magnificent film Das Boot) or the violent clash of political skulduggery (i.e. The Hunt For The Red October or Rene Clement’s largely forgotten The Damned). When these films do their job, there’s no substitution for the dripping tension and rip roaring entertainment. In Kevin MacDonald’s Black Sea, the submarine adventure is grafted onto the hard boiled framework of the heist film… and it works incredibly well.
Starring Jude Law as Robinson, the ringleader for a group of scabrous ex-cons, dissolute Navy men and salty unemployed divers, his intentions are made extremely clear when, in the opening scene, he’s summarily fired from his ship repairman job of 30 years and thrust into economic stress. To complicate matters, he’s lost his wife and child to a messy divorce and only sees his son on clandestine trips sitting outside his school.
While wallowing in this recess of self-pity and anger, old friend Kurston (Daniel Ryan) enters and spins an interesting tale of lost Nazi U-boats and sunken treasure. Seeing his opportunity to cash in and create a better life for himself, Robinson quickly seeks financial backing from powerful businessman Lewis (Tobias Menzies) and assembles an international crew of ‘has-beens’ and social dropouts to carry out the underwater endeavor.
Wasting little time on back story or further exposition, director MacDonald realizes the potency of his story lies in the fraught exploits of the treasure hunt and Black Sea quickly sets sail. Like the best heist films, the real danger lies not in apprehension, but in surviving the cannibalistic whims of human nature once wealth becomes tangible. Despite the possibility of surfacing with millions of dollars in gold bars, the crew devolves into various warring factions due to nationality and the belief that equal shares isn’t possible.
Leading the divisive impulses is Frasier, played by the current go-to-guy for slow burn malevolence Ben Mendelsohn. He has a major problem with the non English speaking Russian half of the crew and brandishes his knife with seething intent. Picked for the journey at the last minute by Robinson is eighteen year old Tobin (Bobby Schofield), wide eyed and surely not up to the gruff standards of his shipmates. As the businessman’s proxy sent to ensure his investment is safe, prodigious Scoot McNairy embodies Daniels, the other extremely ‘green’ person on board trying to maintain some semblance of sanity when things go haywire.
Though we eventually discern motivation in Jude Law’s Robinson, the rest of the characters are trace outlines of the type of guys we normally see in this type of film. They’re serviceable and blend into the rusty, steam punk fabric of the submarine interior, allowing for the focus to eventually rest on the conflict between a few. Written by Dennis Kelly, this isn’t a hindrance to the cumulative effect of the film, but rather an expected by-product of its well-tread genre.
Bathed in various red lighting, cramped quarters and tight metal passageways, Black Sea is an expertly crafted and taut thriller. In the long procession of similar films, it succeeds in maintaining tension and creating some terrific set-pieces. It also goes to show that all the complicated looking mechanical boards and heavy spigot doors are nothing more than physical fodder in a psychological battle between men unable to rectify their inflamed egos and basic lust for survival. It’s pretty terrifying, though, and it all happens at 300 meters below the water’s surface. And if one got nothing else from this review, go watch Das Boot now!
Black Sea opens today in wide release throughout Dallas.