'Black Sea': Film Review

Courtesy of Focus Features
Run silent, run shallow

Jude Law leads an international cast in Kevin Macdonald's British submarine thriller

Audiences who can buy Jude Law as a grizzled Scottish sea-dog may get a kick out of Kevin Macdonald's Black Sea, a semi-waterlogged confluence of the submarine and heist sub-genres which seeks to evoke a testosterone-soaked, 1970s feel. Torpedoed by a screenplay that laboriously updates Alistair MacLean tropes to a post-post-Cold-War 21st century seascape, this middlingly tense, unambiguously adult-oriented thriller could connect with grit-hungry audiences in its native U.K. but may find itself in choppier waters when bowing Stateside mid-January. The prominent presence in the international cast of Russian stars Konstantin Khabensky and Grigoriy Dobrygin, meanwhile, will boost prospects across eastern Europe.

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Submarine pictures have long depended on the evocation and escalation of claustrophobia, so there's much to be said for adding an extra layer of confinement by setting the action in an enclosed area such as the eponymous California-sized body of water, rather than the usual open oceans.

 And Dennis Kelly's script proceeds from a plausible historical basis, involving the shipment of a huge quantity of gold from the USSR to Nazi Germany in 1941 just before those two nations entered into catastrophic conflict. Seven decades later, a mercenary team of mercenary blokes go in search of the long-submerged U-Boat rumored to harbor the loot. The operation is funded by a shady businessman and led by Law's Robinson — not the most propitious of names for a sea-going adventurer. Further signs of ill-fortune abound, while the men's choice of vessel, a rust-bucket of a submarine, looks like it could have served alongside the Battleship Potemkin.

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There's much talk of how the gold-hunt involves eluding the watchful eyes of the nearby Russian navy, but external threats are much less of a hazard than internal strifes between the Russky crew-members and their English-speaking colleagues. Most volatile among the latter is Frasier (Ben Mendelsohn), a knife-thumbing Australian "psychopath" whose violent streak proves a lazily handy pivot for the narrative on no less than two separate occasions. 

While in severe peril of hot-head typecasting, Mendelsohn is here a welcome source of dry Ocker wit, and those ultra-reliable character players Michael Smiley and David Threlfall also make much of their underwritten roles. Big-screen debutant Kelly, creator of Channel 4's Emmy-winning Utopia, is much more interested in teenage greenhorn Tobin (Bobby Schofield), a happy-go-lucky Scouser whose impending fatherhood allows him to bond with guilt-ridden divorcee-dad Robinson.

 The latter's back-story allows Macdonald to shoehorn in the picture's sole significant female presence, Jodie Whittaker cameoing via shimmery, echoey flashbacks as Robinson's ex. Our tormented hero's back-story ranks among the cornier aspects of the enterprise, Law's attempted transition from Dr. Watson to Jason Statham-esque territory foundering amid the ruins of his supposedly Aberdonian accent. Perhaps Macdonald and Kelly sought to honor The Hunt for Red October by evoking aural memories of Sean Connery — dangerous to evoke memories of such illustrious precedents. 

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The ambiguities profitably explored by John McTiernan's movie are sadly thin on the ground here. Indeed, despite dialogue about how Robinson's gold-lust has unbalanced his mental equilibrium, the "skipper" is seldom other than a competent helmsman as he navigates the usual catalogue of calamities. Director Macdonald, in his sixth outing of the decade including documentaries, likewise handles proceedings with a self-effacing, uninspired competence. That said, his exploitation of that key sub-movie resource, off-screen space, is underwhelming, and his reliance on Ilan Eshkeri's supposedly pulse-quickening score occasionally yields counterproductive results.

 Modishly jittery hand-held camerawork aside, there's precious little here to distinguish Black Sea from its early-80s counterparts, despite the epochal changes wreaked in this particular region during the intervening period. Kelly's script opportunistically and repeatedly plays the "99 percent" card by banging on about the proletarian pirates putting one over on The Man — most of them have been callously cast aside by their corporate employers. But the absence of even a mention of 2013-14 turmoils around this particular coast anchors proceedings firmly in a suddenly-bygone, pre-Maidan era.

Production company: Cowboy Films

Cast: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Bobby Schofield, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Smiley

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenwriter: Dennis Kelly

Producers: Kevin Macdonald, Charles Steel

Executive producers: Jim Cochrane, Merve Harzadin, Tessa Ross 

Cinematographer: Christopher Ross

Production designer: Nick Palmer

Costume designer: Natalie Ward

Editor: Justine Wright

Composer: Ilan Eshkeri

Casting: Nina Gold

Sales: Film4, London

Rating R, 115 minutes

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