Review: BLACK SEA is a 21st-Century Moby Dick with B-Movie Thrills

“I’m not going home poor!” shouts a sailor in Black Sea as he risks life and limb in the pursuit of gold. There’s an interesting subtext (that’s eventually brought to the fore) in this submarine/heist/action film about desperate men taking desperate measures to secure their futures in these times of austerity and financial uncertainty. While a bit heavy-handed, the themes are nicely illustrated with B-Movie thrills in a movie that swings from dour miserabilism to black comedy to a cautionary tale about obsession and greed.

A fully committed Jude Law stars as Robinson, a down-on-his-luck submarine captain made redundant by the modern world and recently fired from his job by a fresh-faced corporate lackey young enough to be his son. With no job prospects and a crumbling personal life, Robinson’s forced to take a dangerous job offer from a mysterious benefactor in order to get back his sea legs. He’s tasked with assembling a submarine crew to journey to the depths of the Black Sea to recover millions in Nazi gold from a downed German U-Boat that’s gone unnoticed for decades.

In quick order Robinson gathers a motley crew of equally desperate Russian and English men to join him on his quest, promising them each an equal share of the $40 million they’re set to earn in an egalitarian move that hides darker motives. Much of the cast is made up of character actor ringers, playing well-worn types they inhabit effortlessly. Some examples include: Scoot McNairy as a weaselly company man that arranges the deal between Robinson and the financiers, Michael Smiley as the voice of reason amongst hotheads, and Ben Mendelsohn as an unhinged psycho who’s somehow still invited into an enclosed submersible (“he’s a good diver” being the reasoning here).

Once they procure an aging rust-bucket sub (“Boats are like whores – the old ones know how to look after you best” remarks a Russian), the crew sets about on their quixotic journey to the bottom of the sea. With Law in place as the driven and barely-contained Robinson, it’s clear  around the time he smashes the sub’s only radio that he has other plans in mind beyond a simple retrieval mission. Bottled up in tight spaces and with tensions rising between the English and Russian crew members, it’s not long before simmering thoughts of violence become shocking action, further putting these men at risk and pitting them against one another. Robinson quickly becomes a de-facto Captain Ahab forced to motivate his men towards their ultimate goal as the odds continue to mount against them. Their numbers slowly start decreasing, increasing the surviving member’s shares but making it harder to pilot the decrepit old sub back to safety.

Black Sea recovers from its overly serious opening scenes to become something of a crackerjack thriller that receives energy and momentum from the interplay and tension amongst the varied crew. It’s a throwback in that way, a relatively straightforward “men on a mission” movie with some social commentary thrown in to provide contemporary relevance. Many of the beats are familiar and well-worn, but there’s a satisfying order and inevitability to the crew’s devolving into chaos which is orchestrated with skill by director Kevin Macdonald.

In particular, a mid-film excursion into the inky sea itself by divers from the sub recalls the glory years of undersea adventures like The Abyss and Leviathan (1989), even if Black Sea lacks the grandeur of bigger-budgeted features. It reminds viewers that the best submarine movies are like outer space adventures (Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan basically culminates in a submarine battle fought in outer space), and both types of tales are fraught with peril and mortal danger, often originating from within your fellow shipmates. A character even remarks that “That’s the thing about being on a sub – outside it’s just dark, cold death”, a comment that echoes Star Trek’s Leonard “Bones” McCoy’s thoughts on space.

In one pivotal scene the radar operator – having lost the ability to use his actual radar – has to map out the sea floor using the delightfully old-school technique of banging a bunk against the wall and timing the reverberating echoes. Black Sea itself contains some of that same ingenuity, breathing new life into the submarine genre by rearranging pre-existing parts. It’s a little creaky at times (some of the deaths don’t hold the weight the movie places on them for instance) but on the whole the endeavour runs on the fuel of Law’s manic energy and some twisty plotting that provides thematic depth. Black Sea is class warfare at 20,000 leagues under the sea with millions in Nazi gold as the white whale to Law’s Captain Ahab, and that’s enough to qualify it as a win for fans of B-Movies and stripped-down thrillers alike.

Black Sea (2015)

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Runtime: 114 minutes

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