When it seems like superhero movies or intense dramas are the only movies that Hollywood has invested in of late, “Black Sea,” starring Jude Law, is a refreshing thriller that goes beyond the traditional submarine drama. “Black Sea” is both a gripping treasure hunt and a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.
The film maintains a Cold War atmosphere, although it is set in the present. A sunken WWII Nazi U-boat full of gold lies at the bottom of the Black Sea. And a motley crew of six Russians and six Britons is led into fearsome depths in an aged, Soviet-era submarine in an attempt to retrieve the gold. They are incentivized by the promise of an equal share in the bullion hoard. Such movies generally feature a fraternity-like pack of thieves. However, the suspense in “Black Sea” arises from the fact that no such camaraderie exists amongst this crew. The fewer sailors survive, the greater the share for the others. Thus, the drama turns from momentary revelry to a terrifying deep-sea thriller.
Director Kevin McDonald does an admirable job employing his experience in documentaries (“Marley”) and drama (“The Last King of Scotland”) to raise “Black Sea” out of the doldrums of an otherwise dead January for Hollywood. McDonald’s close shots within a real Russian submarine give the film a realistic feeling of mind-bending claustrophobia and crushing terror. Even though the film takes place almost exclusively in four rooms, the shots never feel repetitive. In fact, like all great danger-filled action movies, “Black Sea” puts the viewer in the same situations as the characters he is watching, forcing him into the cramped and stuffy space of the submarine along with the perfidious crew. McDonald, with his emphasis on the pitch black rolling ocean and the outside shots of the relatively tiny bobbing submarine, constantly underlines the terrifying fact that as greed takes hold and the crew turns on one another, there is no easy escape.
However, it is the acting that truly elevates “Black Sea” above the traditional submarine drama. An aging Jude Law plays surly and desperate Captain Robinson, a down-and-out man whose last hope is to retrieve the Nazi gold after being fired from his corporate employer. While his character’s storyline may be overused, Law still comes off as genuine. While his desperation to find meaning after being estranged from his wife and son, Law takes on a father role for Tobin (Bobby Scholfield), the young newcomer on the ship, as he tries to bring back his sense of purpose. The rest of crew, each bringing their own unique talents, rounds out a great ensemble. From the sketchy financier (Scoot McNairy), the swarthy Irishman Reynolds (Michael Smiley), seasoned mariner (David Threlfall), and the psychopathic master diver Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), it is easy to imagine that these men belong in a submarine and could not live normal lives on land.
In all, although the tropes of “Black Sea” may seem tired or overused, it is refreshing to see a film that does not depend on superhero-fueled pyrotechnics to deliver on its promise of action and suspense. “Black Sea”, although not a perfect movie, does rise above the typical submarine drama and is a great reprieve from the January movie season.
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