When it comes to submarine movies, I feel the genre peaked early on with Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot” which proved to be as claustrophobic as movies get. Others have come close to equaling its visceral power, but there’s no topping it. I went into “Black Sea” knowing this would be the case, and that helped a lot because this movie proved to be a lot more intense and nail-biting than I expected it to be. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it is a gritty thriller which doesn’t let up.
Jude Law stars as submarine Captain Robinson who, as the movie starts, has been laid off from his salvage job which leaves him with few prospects for future employment. It turns out he’s not the only one as his friends and colleagues have been kicked out of their jobs as well, and it serves as an annoying reminder of how companies spend more time firing employees than they do hiring them.
But Robinson soon gets offered a job by a shadowy backer who tells him about a World War II submarine that has sunk to the bottom of the sea and which contains an enormous wealth of gold. Seeing how it offers him and his colleagues more than enough to quit any day job they can hope to get, he commandeers an old and fairly decrepit submarine from the Cold War days to get at the gold hidden miles below the surface. But in addition to avoiding detection from the Soviets as he travels below their radar, he has to contend with the fragile relations between the crew members as they come from different places and don’t have enough trust in each other to make this mission run smoothly.
What makes “Black Sea” an especially effective thriller is that the depths of the ocean prove to be every bit as threatening as the twisted psychology of the submarine’s passengers. Everyone on board has their own selfish motives, and those motives have to contend with the dangers they have to endure on a ship way past its prime. It doesn’t take long before you start to wonder what’s going to kill these men first; the crushing depths or their own paranoia.
“Black Sea” was directed by Kevin Macdonald, a filmmaker who has gone from making documentaries like “Touching the Void” and “Marley” to unforgettable dramas like “The Last King of Scotland” and 2013’s underrated “How I Live Now.” He doesn’t have much to work with in terms of originality, but he makes effective use of the claustrophobic setting to where our nerves are effectively fried throughout. Macdonald also gives equal attention to the human element as the characters drive the action more than you might think. Even though some of the characters’ decisions become rather silly towards the end, he makes you empathize with them to a certain extent. These days, who can’t relate to being laid off or jumping at the opportunity to make a fortune? People will do anything to survive these days.
It’s interesting to see Jude Law in a role like this where he portrays a hard scrabble worker who looks like he needs a good long shower on a regular basis. I’ve gotten so used to seeing him as this handsome man onscreen to where it threatened to make me forget what a great actor he is. While his Scottish brogue gets a little too thick at times, he fully inhabits his role of a man who is more in love with the sea than he is with his own family. Law is also surrounded by a terrific cast which includes Ben Mendelsohn (terrific in the criminally overlooked “Starred Up”), Scoot McNairy, David Threlfall and Konstantin Khabensky who each imbue their roles with a lot of grit and desperation. It helps to have actors this good in a movie which on the surface might seem run of the mill.
At this point, I don’t think it’s even possible to reinvent the submarine movie genre. Where else can you go with it after movies like “Das Boot,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Beneath” to name a few? All you can hope for is that it can be done well and keep you on the edge of your seat, and “Black Sea” manages to do that more than you might expect. Sometimes that’s all you need a movie to do.