“Black Sea” intends to be as good as any other good movies about submarine crew being cornered and pressured below the sea. While there are a number of noticeable contrived or illogical aspects in the story, the tension and suspense on the screen are steadily accumulated under its gritty, pessimistic atmosphere, and we always feel a certain grim possibility as its seedy characters are pushed into their underwater perils mercilessly testing their will and strength.
Jude Law, who has recently entered the second phase of his acting career as shown in his naughty electrifying turn in “Dom Hemingway” (2013), plays Robinson, a bitter veteran captain who devoted his whole life to the expertise of marine salvage and then suddenly finds himself getting fired by his company on one day mainly because his field is going downhill lately. At least, the company gives him some money as compensation, but he does not know what to do with his unemployment or the rest of his life. His family already left him while he spent too much time on his profession, and all he can do is nursing his wounded feelings at a local pub with his old friend and colleague Kurstin (Daniel Ryan), who has also been struggling with his life since getting fired.
And that is when one tempting offer is thrown in front of him. Through Kurstin, Robinson meets Daniels (Scoot McNairy), and Daniels introduces Robinson to his rich employer who will finance a covert illegal plan to be carried out by Robinson and others. During the World War II, a German U-boat carrying a cargo of gold bars was disappeared somewhere in the Black Sea and then was forgotten for many years, but its sinking spot was recently found near the coast of Georgia, and it is the job of Robinson and others to go down to the spot in question and find the gold inside that sunken U-boat.
Despite many risk factors including the Russian Navy which will arrest him and his crew as soon as they are spotted, Robinson cannot walk away from this risky but possibly lucrative chance, so we get that usual montage sequence we saw from many heist thriller movies before. While a shabby Russian submarine is ready for them at the port of Sevastopol, Robinson begins to assemble his crew members one by one, and he also recruits Tobin (Bobby Schofield), a young man who has been close with Kurstin.
Right from their first day, things do not look well to Robinson and his crew. Their submarine is in the dire need of repair and polish before full operation (its exterior is virtually covered with rust, for instance), and there is also the growing conflict among his crew members. With his Russian partner Blacky (Konstantin Khabensky) as the only communication line between British and Russian crewmen, Robinson holds his crew under constant control as much as he can, but we see the potential of troubles especially from Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), a very unpleasant troublemaker who is hired just because 1) he is a top-class diver necessary for the job and 2) he can be always utilized whenever it is necessary to add more tension to the narrative.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that this nervous situation gets only worse as they approach to their destination spot. Robinson emphasizes to others that whatever they will obtain will be divided equally among them later, but, as shown in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), people can do anything in front of gold, and some of the crew members actually begin to consider the possibility of getting more share. Several incidents put more pressure on Robinson and others in the submarine along with water pressure, and they are soon on the thin line between determination and desperation as their options are decreased step by step.
Human condition pushed to the extreme is not a new subject at all to the director Kevin Macdonald. His documentary “Touching the Void” (2003) was a vivid and terrifying recreation of a real-life survival story in the Andes which will surely chill you to the bone for good reasons, and it reminded me of why I do not like to be on high places. His previous film “How I Live Now” (2013) was an interesting cross between coming-of-age tale and nuclear disaster, and its realistic depiction of the characters’ desperate struggle in their shattered world was one of its major strengths.
Under Macdonald’s taut, economic direction, the movie maintains well its level of tension along with that typical claustrophobic mood we can expect from submarine films, and the cinematographer Christopher Ross’ camera seldom feels inhibited or blocked as smoothly doing its job around the closed, narrow spaces confining the characters on the screen. There are solid moments crackling with enough intensity to tighten our attention, and Jude Law is compelling to watch as conveying us the mounting pressure inside his character; even when the story starts to get shaky around its climactic part, his intense performance ably carries the film as its center, and the other actors in the film are also convincing in their functional/stereotype roles.
Compared to “Das Boot” (1981) and “The Hunt for Red October” (1990), “Black Sea” is around two or three steps behind them, but it is a good one to watch for having some thrill and dread, and that was enough for me to overlook most of its weak points during my viewing. I did not believe much in the certain details of the final scene or other plot contrivances in the film, but I was involved in what was at stake for the characters, and I was anxious about what would happen next to them. It is cold and dark below the sea, and it is really dreadful to get yourself buried alive below it, you know.