Director Kevin Macdonald is probably best known for The Last King of Scotland but his latest endeavor, the claustrophobic submarine film, Black Sea, owes more to his outstanding documentary, Touching the Void, than it does to his previous feature work. Black Sea contains its share of fantastical elements and the ending in particular evidences gaping holes of logic and physics but, as a "refrigerator film," it works well. The movie crackles with tension and rarely takes the easy way out as it borrows from obvious sources like (insert the name of your favorite submarine movie here) and less obvious ones such as Moby Dick and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Cold War flavor gives Black Sea the feel of something that might have been made three decades ago.
Black Sea opens with the dismissal of Robinson (Jude Law) by a HR representative at the salvage company for which the ex-Navy submarine captain has worked for the past 11 years. In his words, he gave everything (including his marriage) to the job; it earns him little more than a severance payment of about 8000 pounds. But an opportunity lurks around the corner of unemployment. The wreckage of a WW2 German U-Boat carrying millions of dollars of gold bullion has been discovered in disputed Georgia/Russia waters. It is suggested that Robinson captain a privately-financed salvage operation to take a sub to the U-Boat, offload the gold, and return home for a big payday. For the job, Robinson recruits a half-Russian half-British crew and promises each of the men full shares. Once underway, however, personality issues rise to the surface as the sub sinks beneath it. In the confined quarters, an explosion is as inevitable as hearing the phrase "approach hull crush depth."
Black Sea is less a traditional sub thriller along the lines of The Hunt for Red October or Run Silent, Run Deep than it is a morality play about the wages of greed. Every problem encountered by Robinson and his crew stems from one of two roots: racial/nationalistic mistrust and/or gold lust. The screenplay, credited to Dennis Kelly, cannily recalls The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the way that love of lucre can warp men's personalities. It also partially transforms Robinson into a Captain Ahab type obsessed with the intangible whale of corporate malfeasance.
Most submarine movies are excellent vehicles for high-voltage suspense and Black Sea is no exception. (In fact, if a director can't milk white-knuckle tension from this setting, he should look for another career.) Although there is no ship-to-ship conflict, the way in which the crew separates along nationalistic levels creates its own sense of unease, especially when the English/Russian-speaking go-between is killed. Robinson isn't an ideal peacemaker but he rules with an iron fist and a gun. The diving sequence is a good example of how Macdonald can use our uncertainty about who (if anyone) will survive the ordeal as a way to heighten the anticipation of something very bad happening.
The cast is mostly comprised of character actors like Scoot McNairy, who plays the corporate shill "running" the operation, and other vaguely familiar faces. The exception is Jude Law, whose shift to less glamorous roles (as emphasized in Dom Hemingway) continues with Robinson. A badass with an ax to grind, he never quite achieves full three-dimensionality despite gauzy flashback sequences to better days, but Law's performance is volcanic enough that we don't much care. He makes us believe there's more to the character than is in the screenplay.
The special effects are rudimentary - a few model shots (or CGI representations) of a rusty old Russian boat navigating the underwater currents. Black Sea is built on what happens within the hull not outside of it. This could just as easily have been a low-budget sci-fi film set inside a deep-space exploratory craft. Black Sea is about the ebb and flow of human interaction when circumstances range from tense to desperate. Can enemies band together during a time of extreme crisis or will the friction between them result in a catastrophe that dooms everyone? This is Black Sea's central question and there's little doubt that, at the end of nearly two hours of engrossing, atmospheric cinema, the film answers it.
© 2015 James Berardinelli