Director Kevin Macdonald, who’s toyed with faction—fact-based stories liberally sprinkled with fictional elements—in “Touching the Void” and “The Last King of Scotland,” while happily embracing pure fantasy in “The Eagle,” veers toward the latter rather than the former with his latest, a good but not great contribution to the suspenseful submarine genre. “Black Sea” tells a story that’s almost contemporary, but its scenario of men at odds in a confined underwater space is as old as “Run Silent, Run Deep” and “Das Boot.”
The time of the narrative, however, is nearly now. The Russian takeover of Crimea apparently hasn’t yet occurred, but the Black Sea is nonetheless dominated by Putin’s fleet, stationed at Sevastopol. And, according to the script by Dennis Kelly, one of the wrecks on its floor is a World War II German sub, which when it sunk was carrying a cargo of gold ingots sent in 1941 to Hitler by his then-ally Stalin in hopes of staving off a feared Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
News of the forgotten treasure is brought to Robinson (Jude Law), a Scottish seaman with sub experience, just as he’s been canned by the salvage company for which he’s worked after leaving the Navy. Another fired colleague tells him about the wealth waiting to be found, and introduces him to Daniels (Scoot McNairy), a sneaky American looking to put together a crew to undertake a mission to get it, with financing provided by an effete businessman (Tobias Menzies). Robinson, desperate both to secure some cash and to win back his estranged family (a few flashbacks provide evidence of what he’s lost) , jumps at the chance and puts together a group of skilled roughnecks—half of them English and half Russian—who are all as financially challenged as he is, though at the last minute the friend who proposed the job to him commits suicide, leaving his spot to be filled by a callow, untested young fellow named Tobin (Bobby Schofield), for whom Robinson will become a sort of surrogate father-figure during the voyage. After securing a surplus Soviet sub, Robinson and his crew—including nervous Daniels, forced by his bosses to join the mission—are on their way.
Part of the tension results from the condition of the sub, which is hardly in pristine shape and needs close tending-to. An additional cause of concern arises from the need to avoid being noticed by the Russian ships constantly patrolling the area. But most of the simmering edginess comes from the uneasy relationships among the men in their claustrophobic environment. There’s a generally condescending attitude toward newbie Tobin, of course, but also a rift between the English and Russian crewmen, exacerbated by Robinson’s peremptory announcement that all will share equally in the mission’s profits—a decision that naturally leads some to reckon that the amount they’ll receive will depend on how few of them are left by voyage’s end. Robinson tries to keep a lid on the friction, helped by his camaraderie of long standing with most of his British mates, and he eventually finds a Russian ally in Morosov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), whose facility in English makes him a natural go-between. But Daniels proves a troublemaker, and he finds someone to manipulate in volatile loose cannon Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn).
Kelly contrives a succession of crises for Robinson to deal with, including a dangerous attempt to navigate through a narrow gorge and a tricky mission by divers from one submarine to another on the ocean floor. Frankly the buildup to the grand finale—which finds water pouring into the vessel, most of the crew gone and no possibility of reaching land—piles implausibility upon implausibility, and it brings a conclusion that invites a bit of a snicker in its combination of heroic self-sacrifice and hair’s-breadth escape for the characters who, by the close, have become the focus of audience sympathy. The script also pointedly and persistently plays up the grumbling among the men—especially Robinson—about the way in which proles like themselves are constantly taken advantage of by the rich and powerful (a message that’s re-emphasized near the close, in a twist involving Daniels and his bosses that turns out not only to be gratuitous but undermines the picture’s initial set-up).
But while it’s unquestionably true that “Black Sea” has enough logical holes to make it sink, the movie proves seaworthy as a macho tale of men being tested in a grueling underwater venture. Law, sporting a thick Scottish brogue, successfully continues his effort—begun in earnest with “Dom Hemingway”—to jettison a handsome leading-man image in favor of character roles, and the rest of the cast contribute stalwart turns as the increasingly sweaty, grimy crew—though Mendelsohn can certainly be accused of chewing the scenery with a surfeit of relish. Macdonald, cinematographer Christopher Ross and editor Justine Wright prove adept at manipulating the sub’s claustrophobic environment, though it must be added that visual effects in sequences on the sea floor outside the vessel aren’t top-flight.
In the final analysis “Black Sea” is an old-fashioned sort of submarine suspenser, one that suffers somewhat from its plot holes and heavy-handed socio-economic subtext; but overall it’s a mostly enjoyable throwback to macho melodramas of an earlier age.