With a film legacy that includes Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 German epic Das Boot, John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide (1995), the submarine has been the perfect setting for films that emphasize themes of mutiny, claustrophobia or conflict against nature. There’s always inherent danger to deep, underwater travel, where any serious mechanical issue can leave a crew at the mercy or whim of providence. Black Sea, directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), is the latest entry into the sub-genre. It ticks off all of the aforementioned boxes—adding the literal element of lost gold—for a serviceable, but way too predictable subsurface heist film.
Black Sea opens with a dose of realism: the hardworking, Scottish submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) is laid off from his job. After 11 years at an underwater salvage company and 20 more in the Royal Navy, Robinson’s dedication to the sea has cost him everything, most notably his wife (Jodie Whittaker) and young son. After his termination, Robinson has difficulty regaining his land legs and struggles with both unemployment and an empty apartment. If Macdonald had explored this more cerebral, blue-collar vein further, he could have found a tonally different, just-as-compelling drama, but the emphasis in Black Sea rests squarely on the action, and scenes with the captain’s family are largely told through brief, gauzy-focused beach shots.
The embittered Robinson hears of a sunken German U-boat filled with gold sitting on the floor of the titular Black Sea, in an area disputed by Russia and Georgia. The Russians don’t know about the sub, the Georgians can’t enter the area without risking attack, and Robinson’s former salvage company isn’t allowed to excavate until the political dispute is settled. With millions of pounds possibly at stake, he jumps at the chance to make his claim and win back his family. Robinson sets up a meeting with a mysterious financial backer, facilitated by a shifty American businessman, Daniels (Scoot McNairy). The Yank also happens to be claustrophobic, so early on the audience knows exactly where his character’s headed.
While it begins on a dramatic note, Black Sea does not hesitate to pivot into a run-of-the mill underwater treasure hunt as soon as Robinson pulls together a motley crew: half British, half Russian and all degenerates. The story, by first-time feature screenwriter Dennis Kelly (of British television’s Utopia) can’t do without a number of clichés: The Russian diesel sub they use for the hunt is a pre-Cold War rust-bucket; and, of course, the men get greedy—and savage—when they learn that Robinson plans to divide any found loot equally. The fewer the men, the more the money, right?
With the exception of Law’s character, and young, green sailor Tobin (Bobby Schofield), whom Robinson treats as a surrogate son, the men are largely one-dimensional, violent brutes. Conflict is also ratcheted up a few notches because of communications issues, as there are only a couple of bilingual men aboard the sub. And so, Robinson spends much of his time settling disputes and staving off mutinies. As usual, Law gives a committed performance, outshining the rest of the film, a la last year’s Dom Hemingway. Instead of playing a British sailor in Black Sea, however, Law’s character is a Scotsman, which is slightly perplexing. His nationality isn’t imperative to the plot—there are plenty seafaring towns in England—making his brogue unnecessary and distracting.
The shots inside the close quarters of the vessel, even ones without much action, are exceptionally tense and stifling. Credit goes to cinematographer Christopher Ross, who operated his own camera during sequences filmed both on custom studio sets and inside of an actual submarine, maneuvering around the cast, a skeletal crew and the boat’s equipment to bring a faithful representation to the screen. Action scenes, particularly as the divers leave the sub to search for possible gold, are taut and thrilling—to a point. Macdonald unfortunately takes the “more is more” approach, with one catastrophe after another befalling the captain and his crew. The limits of incredulity are stretched thin, and in the end, though Black Sea is at times an admirable, even memorable film, it could have used a lot more of the sad realism with which it opened.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writer: Dennis Kelly
Starring: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, David Threlfall, Grigory Dobrygin
Release Date: Jan. 23, 2015
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.