Take a bunch of grizzled character actors and stick them in a metal tube under the ocean, add some depth charges and torpedoes and the like, and drama is bound to result. From “The Enemy Below” and “Run Silent, Run Deep” to “The Hunt For Red October” and “Crimson Tide” by way of “Das Boot,” the submarine thriller sub-genre has been a popular one for decades. But in recent years, it has run aground, without a major new film in the genre since Kathryn Bigelow‘s misfire “K-19: The Widowmaker” over a decade ago.
Kevin Macdonald is hoping to change that. The Oscar-winning documentarian-turned-features-director is coming off a few disappointments (“State Of Play,” “The Eagle,” “Marley“), plus his last film “How I Live Now,” which was pretty good, but which literally no one saw. Now he’s heading under the waves for “Black Sea,” a below-the-water thriller that hopes to reinvigorate the genre. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out, though the end product isn’t overly painful either.
Set in the present day, the film opens with Robinson (Jude Law), a veteran submarine captain who specializes in marine salvage, being fired from his job with a paltry payoff. He’s facing having to find work flipping burgers until a former colleague tips him off about a big potential final score: a Nazi submarine that reportedly sunk in the Black Sea during the early days of the Second World War, loaded with a bribe from Stalin to Hitler in the form of at least $40 million dollars in gold bars.
With the help of shifty American money-man Daniels (Scoot McNairy), Robinson secures backing to buy a rusty old Soviet sub in the Crimea, and starts putting a crew together, one that has to be half Russian in order to operate the ship. It includes right-hand man Blackie (Konstantin Khabenskiy, from “Night Watch” and its sequels), old Navy pals Reynolds (“Kill List” thesp Michael Smiley) and Peters (David Threlfall, who played the William H. Macy role in the British original version of “Shameless“), the bearded, enigmatic Morozov (Grigoriy Dobrygin of “A Most Wanted Man“), 18-year-old rookie Tobin (newcomer Bobby Schofield), and the wild card: Australian Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s essential to the mission because of his deep-sea diving skills, but also might be psychotic. The submarine sets off without a hitch, but things, as you might imagine, get more difficult from there.
Written by playwright Dennis Kelly (who penned hit Broadway musical “Matilda” and UK TV series “Utopia,” currently being remade by David Fincher for HBO), the script is a fairly stripped down, no-nonsense adventure thriller, sketching out characters mostly in archetypes, and with little time for life back at home (Jodie Whittaker pops up as Law’s character’s ex-wife, but if she had a line, it wasn’t a memorable one). And on one hand, there’s something quite pleasing about that.
Law’s shaky Scottish accent aside, Macdonald’s assembled a strong cast of character actors here, and it’s pretty satisfying seeing them wound up and bouncing off each other in the excellently-achieved rusty, claustrophobic sub set. McNairy’s stuck essentially playing Paul Reiser in “Aliens,” but Smiley, Khabenskiy, Schofield and Dobrygin all make particular impressions. Best of all, as per usual, is Mendelsohn, whose slippery, unstable character is easily the most interesting piece in play — one minute an unhinged psycho, the next a heroic leader, but in a way that feels deliberate rather than inconsistent.
Macdonald keeps things moving along at a fair old lick, and although some of the submarine cliches are in place, the Anglo-Russian culture-clash vibe, and run-down present-day setting, keep things just fresh enough to prevent it from becoming tedious. Things get more substantial later on, too, as the film shifts into a sort of underwater take on “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” with Kelly using the crew and the Nazi loot, along with a third-act twist, as a metaphor for modern capitalism, and the way that the little people are used and abused by the 1%.
The trouble is that there’s not all that much more to be said here that ‘Sierra Madre’ didn’t do nearly 70 years ago, and because the characters have a tendency to change their behavior depending on where the plot needs them to be, it doesn’t feel like a particularly rigorous examination of greed and ruthlessness. Mendelsohn aside, the characters are types rather than people, and Law’s captain in particular is underdeveloped, with his surrogate father-son relationship with Tobin meant to give the film its emotional heart, but never really managing to do so.
It’s also usually perfectly watchable, but never exactly nail-biting: Macdonald’s slightly struggled to carry across the handle he had on suspense in “One Day in September” and “Touching The Void” to his fictional work, and at a slightly overstretched two hours, there’s never the sense there should be of a simmering pot about to boil over (in particular because the key incidents often seem to be somewhat poorly motivated).
The action sequences, such as they are, are even more disappointing: there’s a beautiful sea-bed sequence that becomes incoherent when things kick off, the film never establishing a real sense of geography or drive when it’s outside the ship (ropey ’90s-style VFX don’t help either).
It’s mostly a handsome film (rising star Christopher Ross, who also did good work recently on “Monsters: Dark Continent,” shoots it beautifully), and it’ll pass a couple of hours on a rainy afternoon without too much trouble. But whether as an adventure tale, a thriller, or a morality play, “Black Sea” never quite makes a compelling enough case for its existence when better examples of the submarine genre are already out there. [C]
“Black Sea” is out in the U.K. now, and opens in the U.S. on January 23, 2015.