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Black Sea

January 30, 2015
Black Sea

We may be well into the dump season now, but thankfully not everything that comes out in January and February is awful. This week’s notable exception is Black Sea, a taut submarine thriller that delivers everything it needs to.

Jude Law takes the lead as Robinson — no first names are given, nor are they necessary — who has just been fired from a British marine salvage company. What with modern remote technology they barely need submarines anymore, let alone captains, and so the working man who sacrificed his life to this company is tossed out on the street with no pension and a meager severance.

But an opportunity for revenge comes soon enough: another fired worker knows where the company found an old German U-boat that might be a legendary ship that went down loaded down with Nazi gold. It lies on a relatively shallow ridge in the Black Sea, and the company had made salvage arrangements with the Georgian government just before the conflict with Russia broke out. Now the waters are in dispute, the Russians don’t know the submarine is there, and the company can’t get operate while the conflict is on. An enterprising crew could sneak in and steal the gold out from under everyone’s noses.

So Robinson gets a backer and arranges a skeleton crew of half a dozen Brits and half a dozen Russians to run a post-war Soviet sub that’s practically salvage itself. Most of the our attention is on the British crew, filled with stock figures like the old-timer (David Threlfall), the new kid (Bobby Schofield), the voice of reason (Michael Smiley), and the troublemaker (Ben Mendelsohn). The Russians are largely ciphers; but we get to spend some time with the irascible engineer (Sergey Puskepalis) and the “best ears in the Russian navy” (Sergey Veksler).

The backer even has a representative on board (Scoot McNairy), who spends most of the trip worrying that the ship will sink; one of the crew notes that it wouldn’t be much of a sub if it didn’t. That sort of black humor seems to be essential for submariners of any nationality. It takes a certain sort of personality to thrive on dirty air, separated by a few inches of steel from the “cold, black death” of the waters outside. And when things go wrong it’s not just the hull that begins to crack under the pressure.

As a thriller, Black Sea thrives on tension, and Director Kevin Macdonald knows how to build and release tension, as we saw in his rock-climbing documentary Touching the Void. The whole cast is made up of solid character actors, and it’s their characters who drive much of the suspense. Jude Law even continues his trend towards a “character lead”, as we saw in Dom Hemingway. An estranged ex-wife and son are a pretty standard motivation for a working-class sort like Robinson, but he balances them nicely against his growing lust for the treasure that will finally put him above the rich men who have always controlled his fate.

This may not be the deepest film in theaters right now — ironically enough — but it’s certainly one of the most exciting and entertaining. If you’re looking for something new in mainstream theaters this weekend, this is the one to watch.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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