Black Sea isn’t the best submarine movie ever made, but it’s definitely one of the better ones.
Isolating some admittedly Treasure of the Sierra Madre-esque themes of greed within the confines of a rusty sub – one that creaks under the same pressure that forces its occupants to crack -- director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) delivers a mostly engaging, claustrophobic thriller that’s (refreshingly) driven by character-first stakes that illicit white-knuckle tension.
In its early moments, Black Sea seems one step away from direct-to-Redbox rental, but it quickly – and compellingly – turns into a taut analysis of class warfare once veteran shipping captain Robinson (Jude Law) enlists a crew to search for a sunken U-boat full of Nazi gold. Once found, all are poised to bank an equal share. However, the only thing more dangerous than the crushing depths where their treasure lies are each man’s motives and agendas that surface once they find it.
Robinson did the math in order to do right by everyone on this mission, and Dennis Kelly’s script never fails to find exciting ways for that choice to punish our hero. And while our relationship with the crew never reaches any depth, it proves to be all we need to be captivated by their every choice. There’s the always-reliable Scoot McNairy (Argo) as a more sleazy version of Paul Reiser’s Burke from Aliens – a suit representing the bankroller behind Robinson’s expedition. His job is to keep an eye on their investment, which becomes increasingly complicated thanks to the mix of personalities aboard this ill-fated treasure hunt.
Among the grizzled mix of diving and salvage experts, Fraser (The Dark Knight Rises’ Ben Mendelsohn) is the best of the worst. Gaunt and quick-tempered, Fraser is a frequent thorn in Robinson’s side, and Mendelsohn proves menacingly effective. Black Mirror’s Michael Smiley and relative newcomer Bobby Schoenfeld are also standouts, playing the squirrely Reynolds and young rookie Tobin, respectively.
The closer our hunters get to their treasure, the more tense and exciting the movie becomes.
The dominos don’t just fall, they shatter – all at once. And the fun of Black Sea is how Macdonald treats the broken pieces like shrapnel, each shard cutting deep enough to reveal how far these men are willing to go to earn their worth. Most undone by the fallout is Robinson; he, like his vulnerable Russian boat, is not immune to the bottom of the ocean’s effects. If his obsession to obtain his prize doesn’t kill him, the men under his frayed command will.
As the risks increase, so does Law’s ability to anchor the proceedings with the exact amount of whatever they need. He’s the glue that holds this movie together, with the supporting cast equally adept at their portrayals of men falling apart.
Thematically rich enough to reward those who seek more than just a matinee-priced diversion, but packed with a generous amount of thrills as to not alienate your average moviegoer, Black Sea is the rare winter title that deserves a better berth than January’s dumping ground.
Black Sea is playing in select theaters.