Scottish director Kevin Macdonald found some early success and notoriety with his first narrative feature The Last King of Scotland, which ended up earning Forest Whittaker an Oscar. Since then films such as State of Play and The Eagle haven’t played so well, though his 2013 feature, How I Live Now, managed to turn some heads, even if it wasn’t released on a very wide basis. Known at the beginning of his career as a documentary filmmaker, he’s continued on that track here and there, most recently with Marley, but now he comes to the table with his latest fictional feature, a submarine thriller titled Black Sea starring Jude Law as a submarine captain in search of lost Nazi gold.
While Black Sea has something of an Indiana Jones-sounding plotline, it’s far more serious than that. To go along with the search for sunken gold off the coast of Georgia, there’s a running theme we’re beaten over the head with concerning blue collar workers being used and abused while “the man” gets rich. You look at that idea close enough and you will be light years ahead of the big “twist”, but what’s most troubling about this movie is how good this movie could have been thanks to the action sequences, but they’re largely ruined thanks to the narrative cliches that build up to them.
Law plays Robinson, a man that has just been laid off from his job after 11 years. He lost his family to his 30+ years of working on submarines and now the job has turned its back on him. So, when he hears about a Nazi U-Boat filled with gold he’s all ears, and once someone comes up with the money to finance a voyage to get it he assembles a rag-tag group of individuals best suited for the mission. This group, naturally, will include such stereotypical individuals such as the “psychopath” (Ben Mendelsohn), the suit that shouldn’t even be there (Scoot McNairy) and the youngster that came aboard at the last minute (Bobby Schofield). As if finding a submarine and a crew to carry out an impossible mission into the Georgian waters with the Russian fleet overhead wasn’t enough, screenwriter Dennis Kelly (“Utopia”) felt it was necessary to manufacture cliches to keep things tense, and this is where Black Sea suffers.
Once Robinson alerts his crew to the amount of wealth they stand to gain on this trip and how it will all be distributed into equal shares, tensions begin to mount and the inevitable takes place. And it’s not even the tension between the crew that causes a problem, given the close quarters and the task at hand that’s actually understandable, but it’s the extremes some of these people go to that turn a lot of what takes place into eye-rolling bullshit, taking you directly out of the movie.
Once Macdonald gets beyond the weak storytelling he nails a lot of the action. A sequence featuring a trio of men from the crew heading outside the submarine is harrowing as they step slowly into the blackness. And yet, even though the scene is intense enough, Kelly feels the needs to write in a slip on a sea cliff, not to mention a jump scare lazily harkening back to Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws. Other instances, both before and after this sequence, are even more egregiously offensive.
Black Sea is a film where certainly less would have been more, but instead what we get is more, more, more. Jude Law is great as the scorned sub captain, determined to walk away from his life of hard work with something to show for it. After losing his wife and son he’ll be damned if he ends up poor and flipping burgers, but even in this instance they hit the “rich man beats us down” theme too hard, a thematic element that won’t stop rearing its head as if we can’t grasp the meaning without the characters verbalizing it every ten seconds.
The supporting cast is serviceable, despite most of them being written into stereotypical corners. I personally thought Sergey Veksler was great as the sub’s “ears” and Grigoriy Dobrygin couldn’t help but stand out as one of the better performances as he’s lucky his character didn’t have much to say within a cast of characters that can’t shut up. Subtlety guys, subtlety! Not every emotion has to have words that come with it, just calm down, raise an eyebrow, shrug a shoulder or take a breath and walk away… we’re smart enough to understand emotion, we all live with these feelings on a daily basis.
Macdonald does about as good a job as he can with the material and plotting, it’s a compliment to say that once he finds himself stuck in a cliched corner, the filmmaking is impressive enough to suck you back into the moment despite the fact you couldn’t really care less whether the characters involved live or die. I just can’t help but wonder if there was ever a draft of this film where the men simply had to work together to accomplish a mission harrowing enough without stupidity getting in the way. Movies don’t have to be like insurance commercials, not everyone in this world is stupid. If you’re competent enough to work aboard a submarine I would at least think you’d be smart enough to work with your fellow crewmates when your reward for doing so is millions of dollars.