Black Sea is thrilling, even if the sensation of déjà vu is overpowering at times.
Starring Jude Law as Robinson, a Scottish ex-Navy submarine pilot who has just been laid off from his civilian ocean salvage job, Black Sea is a submarine thriller. You've probably seen every shot in this movie before: muscular, gritty guys in the boiler room. Red lights and that red alert klaxon blaring over cramped spaces. Serious guys making serious faces. The panic of water rushing in at the worst possible time. Black Sea isn't content to just a submarine movie. Director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) appears to want Black Sea to be the grittiest, most masculine submarine movie we'll ever see.
That extends to the characters. Law plays Robinson with a steely, blue-collar grit. He's understandably angry about being laid off, having lost his family to the crazy hours and danger of the job. He's a gifted seaman and he knows it, and he's bitter about the rich prick his wife and son live with now.
Once he hears about a sunken Nazi sub with millions of dollars in gold sitting in contested waters, he puts together a motley crew of other experienced sailors, all of them down-on-their-luck like him. There's Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), an admitted psychopath, but a hell of a diver. Reynolds (Michael Smiley) is a cool-headed ex-Navy guy himself. Daniels (Scoot McNairy) is a smarmy businessman brought on to make sure the funder of the mission is happy with his investment. Robinson takes a shine to a young homeless man, Tobin (Bobby Schofield), who he invites onboard to be a sort of entry-level sailor.
The other half of the crew is Russian, including Baba (Sergey Veksler), a talented sonar operator and Morozov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a quiet everyman. This creates both a language barrier and an inherent problem for the xenophobic Fraser, who starts up trouble almost as soon as the top hatch is closed. Naturally, the crew's search for Nazi gold goes sideways fast, and the film bounces at a breakneck pace from one tense situation to the next.
Black Sea's disinterest in lingering in one place for too long is its greatest asset.
Black Sea's disinterest in lingering in one place for too long is its greatest asset. The movie moves fast from one problem or action sequence to the next, with only a scant few quiet moments for the actors to etch out their characters. As such, each man is basically playing to archetype — all of them working stiffs who are sick of being screwed over by the man (represented rather unsubtly by Daniels). Tobin is only 18, but he's already had a rough go of life, and Robinson obviously sees a lot of himself in the kid. There's real camaraderie between the two, and between Robinson and all of his old buddies.
While Black Sea is thrilling and fast-paced, it can't outrun its core problems. I loved how frank the movie was about class issues, and how the desire to stop being the "filth that guys like him [Daniels]" use to do their "dirty work" is a huge motivating factor for taking on a dangerous mission. But the script is a little too on-the-nose at times. These are talented actors, working under decent direction. I already know they're poor and desperate and tough, I didn't need the extra exposition.
There are a few light moments that work wonders. Easy on, Tobin is given a series of ridiculous tasks — like washing the windows and cleaning the chimney, which Robinson gently tells him is a "good sign." "It means they like you!" he exclaims to the boy, laughing with the rest of the crew. Robinson is flawed, but he's human and cares about the men in his ship.
That "did you get it?" feeling permeates the movie, making it feel unsure of itself. Black Sea's script could've used a little finesse, and a touch more humor would've been welcome as well. I enjoyed my time with these salty characters, and I wanted to know a little more about them, outside of their crazy adventures at the bottom of the sea.
I may have seen something like Black Sea a hundred times before, but the elements hold up, stitched this particular way. If every there was such a thing as submarine movie comfort food, it's this.