Black Sea


* * *

Black Sea, the new submarine thriller starring Jude Law as a disenfranchised former captain looking for a payday—and redemption—by treasure hunting for sunken gold, is a fast-paced, well-acted and mostly thoughtful movie wound tightly by Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald.

Law stars as a career British seaman put out to pasture by a changing world, and as the film opens, his longtime employer informs his rough-hewn Captain Robinson that his services are obsolete. He is promptly fired.

Down on his luck and estranged from his wife and son, who in his frequent absences at sea have moved on to a wealthier, more stable alternative, Robinson is intrigued by a sea tale told at the local pub, one involving a legendary, sunken World War II German U-boat resting comfortably on the bottom of the Black Sea, harboring a lost cargo of gold. What better road to redemption than to retrieve it?

After being recruited by a mysterious billionaire benefactor to do the job, Robinson assembles a ragtag crew of Russian and British rogues, including well-cast Russian actors, notably heartthrob Grigoriy Dobrygin (A Most Wanted Man) who holds his cards for much of the movie, and young British actor Karl Davies as a wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn who becomes a sort of surrogate son to the salty commander.

Also on hand is an excellent, hair-triggered Ben Mendelsohn and the lone American in the group and liaison to the mysterious funding company, played with up-his-sleeve suspicion by Scoot McNairy, who later becomes a symbol of capitalist greed, the direct antitheses of Robinson’s socialist plan to split the treasure evenly.  Of course, nothing is actually what it seems, and once the ramshackle sub gets stuck on the ocean floor, hell breaks loose in the engine room and between the men.

But not before Macdonald (One Day in September, The Eagle, The Last King of Scotland) stages some breathless sequences, including the film’s centerpiece, clearly inspired by William Friedkin’s famous Sorcerer bridge-truck-nitro crossing, here featuring a cargo of gold traveling the murky ridge of an underwater chasm, disaster at each turn.

Working from a tight script by Dennis Kelly and inspired by the 2000 tragedy that befell the Russian navy sub Kursk, which sank in the Barents Sea after a torpedo explosion and despite numerous rescue attempts took the lives of all aboard.

Kelly wisely eschews any sense of Hollywood formula and uplift, instead giving us a grimy, violent movie firmly driven by the economic desperation of the men in the vessel, the constant threat of claustrophobia and suffocation eminent with tempers rising and instincts to survive primal.  Like Das Boot, The Hunt for Red October and even Crimson Tide, Black Sea exploits these close-quarter dynamics to palpable visceral impact.

As a documentarian and to lend authenticity to the production, Macdonald began shooting Black Sea on a real-life submarine permanently fixed on the River Medway, an old, Russian relic that helped the cast understand the intricacies of a submarine’s byways while driving home the claustrophobia. But after two weeks time and many a logistical and physical challenge, the action was transferred to a sound stage, which included a large water tank serving as a lunar-like ocean floor, very much an otherworldly sci-fi nod inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Following last year’s Dom Hemingway, Jude Law continues to reinvent himself in wholly satisfying new ways, here abandoning any remaining traces of his former pretty boy visage to illuminate the quagmire of Robinson’s grunting, hang-dog bloke, an imposing presence who says little but remains firmly focused on his end game.  It’s a man’s man role, and one that allows the actor to go from social and economic outcast to invigorated man on a mission, Law authoritatively and believably navigating cross-cultural crew conflicts and Robinson’s own desperate need for security and validation.  It’s an impressive performance serving Kelly’s well-written physical and emotional extremities.

While Black Sea, on the surface, is formula picture about a treasure hunt, it is ultimately an essay on capitalism, desperation, betrayal and loyalty, and while it doesn’t significantly add to the genre, it has a compelling theme—the exploitation of the underclass by the hands of the wealthy—expertise in craft and substance in Law’s performance.


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