Much like the submarine that takes Captain Robinson to the depths of the ocean, Black Sea takes an interesting set-up and plummets with our expectations. The tense premise brings together a wonderful host of scum and villainy, manning a submarine to recover $40 million worth of sunken gold from the recesses of the titular sea. It is a shame then, that such potential is undermined by a lack of originality and (ironically, for a film set at the bottom of the ocean) a failure to explore the psychology of its characters with sufficient depth.
The plot is hardly the stuff of legend. Captain Robinson (Jude Law) is a former marine salvager, fired from his job after having worked eleven years for the same company. A quick montage highlight’s Robinson’s disordered lifestyle – alone at the job centre, a few pints at the pub, watching from the car as his ex-wife escorts his twelve-year old son to school – the details are sketchy. Given that director Kevin Macdonald has a history with biopics such as Senna and Marley, many viewers may have expected (hoped even) for a complex character study of one man pushed to the edge. Well prepare for those wishes to be well and truly sunk – Captain Robinson is not a complex man. He’s an old-fashioned ‘half-a-lager-and-a-packet-of-crisps’, no-nonsense roughneck, motivated by a desperate need to take back what society owes him.
In this respect, his crew aren’t much different. Upon receiving a tip-off about the whereabouts of sunken Nazi gold, Robinson jacks in his new job, finds a sponsor for a submarine, and puts together a ramshackle team of British and Russian sailors to go salvage it. What could possibly go wrong?
Well for starters, said crew brings together the worst of humanity. Psychopathic Australian diver Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), the silent and imposing ‘Blackie’ (Konstantin Khabensky) and manipulative rich-boy Daniels (Scoot McNairy), make for an interesting mix trapped together at the bottom of the ocean. “Every man gets an equal share” asserts Law’s simple-minded Robinson. “Yes,” retorts Daniels, “but what happens when they realise that their share gets bigger if there are fewer people to split it with?” What happens indeed. Given the straightforward plot and basic characterisation, Black Sea sinks or swims based upon the tension felt as these black-hearted pirates cross and double-cross one another to nab a bigger share of the booty. So thank goodness the actors are up to the challenge.
Jude Law has certainly come a long way in recent years. Previously known for his boyish charm in rom-coms such as The Holiday and Alfie, this couldn’t be further from the grizzled Robinson. It’s an against-type performance which challenges our pre-conceptions, and Law delivers with gusto. Intimidating, tough and mentally-unstable, his Robinson is a thoroughly believable leader for the murderous cohort. That isn’t to take anything away from the supporting cast (Scoot McNairy is a particular standout playing the loathsome manipulator), but it is undoubtedly Law’s performance which carries the film.
Yes, the psychology is underplayed. True, the production values are small. But Macdonald’s thriller hits its stride in pure, undiluted tension, thanks in no small part to the cast’s incredible effort – which just about lifts the film from the depths of total despair. The questions being asked here are nothing new. Who can we trust? Who can’t we trust? Who will live? Who will die – you know the drill. Overused they may be, but effective? Yes! Law and co. take a drab script and translate it into a tense game of underwater cat and mouse, drawn to a close with a gut-wrenching, heart-in-mouth finale.
So why not a higher score? Time to confess, you’ve already had a sneaky peak at that number dangling just below. Whilst it’s true that the actors salvage what they can, Black Sea was destined to stall from the very beginning. Without an engaging script or a new take on the genre, Macdonald is simply re-treading old ground, which is a shame given the potential for psychological exploration. Still, stick your brain in neutral and there are some thrills to be found here. Jude Law gives it his all, but at best this makes Black Sea an entertaining diversion, not terribly ground-breaking.