Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Jude Law as Captain Robinson
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
After being laid off, a Scottish ex-Navy sailor named Robinson (Jude Law) is commissioned to lead a crew of British and Russian sailors to dive to the bottom of the Black Sea via submarine to salvage the wreck of a Nazy sub rumored to contain millions of dollars in gold bars. As the salvage dive starts experiencing problems, tension arises among Robinson’s crew as they realize that Robinson is willing to put all their lives in danger in order to collect the payday and certain factions start realizing that their share goes up with fewer survivors.
The claustrophobic interiors of a submersible deep below the ocean waters has proven countless times as the perfect environment to create dramatic tension, but combining that setting with a heist thriller involving lost Nazi gold adds another layer of genre which makes Kevin Macdonald’s Black Sea a real treat.
Jude Law is Robinson, a sailor who has just been laid off from his job at a large underwater salvage company. One of his mates mentions word of a Nazi submarine full of gold at the bottom of the Black Sea, but Robinson needs a substantial amount of money to buy the necessary equipment to recover it. With the aid of a mysterious benefactor, Robinson assembles a team of British and Russian sailors, including a young 18-year-old lad named Tobin (Bobby Shefield) and Scott McNairy as a company man sent on the trip to keep an eye on his boss’ investment.
That’s the jumping off point for Macdonald’s most accomplished narrative film to date, one that visualizes Dennis Kelly’s captivating script with a great team both in front and behind the cameras to create an intense and suspenseful experience.
It doesn’t take long to set things up and put us inside the decrepit Russian submarine, a real fixer-upper, as the crew begins their descent to the bottom of the Black Sea looking for the missing German sub. Robinson is a capable enough leader in trying to get the two factions together, but once he makes the mistake of telling the crew that profits from the salvage will be split evenly among them, problems start to arise. Soon, the Brits and Russians have turned against each other with the language barrier creating an even bigger problem.
It’s a simple enough concept mostly taking place within a single confined space, which makes it more challenging to maintain the audience’s interest, but Macdonald’s team enhances the performances with editing, lighting and sound design to create something that feels much bigger, falling into the realm of ‘80s James Cameron movies like The Abyss or even Aliens.
Jude Law gives off another commanding performance in what is essentially another character role for him, his presence and commitment to the role allowing you to quickly acclimate to his Scottish accent – it’s very noticeable at first but forgotten by the time they’re in the sub. As much as this is about Robinson’s journey and the hurdles that come into play, Black Sea is very much an ensemble piece about the dynamics of the group, the cast made up some of the finest actors from countries, particularly Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn as the unhinged ex-con diver Fraser whose paranoia becomes a catalyst for creating the most friction among the crew. Everyone else in the cast is just as good, including the lesser-known Russian actors who subtly add lighter moments to the drama to give the audience time to breathe in between the tense moments.
As one might imagine, not everyone survives the experience, Robinson’s judgment becoming compromised once the gold is retrieved and there’s more at stake for them to get it back to the surface. The last act goes a bit overboard in terms of building those stakes, and it’s disappointing when the film ends so abruptly, leaving you wanting to know what happens next.
Other than that, fans of previous submarine thrillers should appreciate the tense, nail-biter of a thriller that Macdonald has created, essentially a strong character piece that doesn’t skimp on action and tension.
Black Sea opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, January 23 and then expands to other cities on January 30.