Black Sea Review: A Story Of Fortune And Redemption


Solid thriller with character issues

Poor Jude Law. A decade ago, the English actor became a punchline during the Oscars when host Chris Rock quipped that he didn’t know who he was and didn’t understand why he was in every movie he saw over the last four years. While it is true Law was in thirteen movies over a six-year span, he also got to work with renowned filmmakers like Anthony Minghella, Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes, David O. Russell, Mike Nichols, and Martin Scorsese. The combination of being overexposed as a leading man and lack of matinee idol appeal saw the British thespian take small or supporting roles the following years in films helmed by the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Wes Anderson.

Why mention all of this? Only to let everyone know that we may be on the cusp of Law’s renaissance as an actor again. It’s not that he was ever a bad actor or away from making movies, but the choice in material makes a world of difference.

His latest, Black Sea, is a submarine movie. Before you yell “ugh”, hear me out. Submarine movies don’t come around all that often. The most high-profile ones include a strong protagonist or two strong (think Crimson Tide with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington), or is carried heavily by its direction (Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot). This post-Cold War drama has a little bit of both.

Jude Law is Robinson, a dutiful captain that has given over a decade of his life to a ship salvaging company. His commitment to the job destroyed his family, leaving him divorced and without parental responsibility. Laid off by his employers, Robinson’s reward is a meager severance package that will provide little in the way of sustainability in the coming months. With future employment looking unavailing, Robinson is spiritless and in need of hope. When he is offered a one-last-job kind of proposition for a secret operation to extract Nazi gold from a sunken U-boat near the bottom of the Black Sea, Robinson agrees to lead the mission.

Movies set in submarines lend themselves to claustrophobic situations on account of the inability to go far away and the cabin fever tendencies that arise. The atmosphere of Black Sea is made more combustible due to interpersonal chaos and country allegiances – the crew consists of Brits and Russians. Most of the crew go without mention, but then you have men like Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), the lunatic; Daniels (Scoot McNairy), the weak-willed assistant to the money men funding the operation; and Tobin (Bobby Schofield), a teenager who’s about to be a father. As per usual in cramped spaces infighting develops when setbacks occur, and bodies start to pile up on account of greed. This leaves Robinson in a moral quandary when forced to choose between the gold and the safety of his remaining crew.

Kevin Macdonald has an eclectic filmography having worked as a documentarian before making features. My introduction to his work was 2003’s Touching the Void, a documentary about what happened to Joe Simpson and Simon Yates when they climbed the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes back in 1985. The film used dramatizations as a means to show what is capable in the most extreme situations. Black Sea, while fiction, is similar in this respect. The submarine allows Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly to capture the combative personalities that exist in tight quarters. To include a small community of violent offenders, foreigners and opportunists is allowance to subvert some of the cliches associated with the submarine thriller subgenre.

Black Sea allows for routine tropes associated with being cooped in a submarine with clashing personalities, but the film borrows a lot from John Huston’s neo-western The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jude Law’s Robinson is not unlike Humphrey Bogart’s Dobbs. Both men are down on their luck who are roped into situations to strike it rich. Robinson’s focus of retrieving the gold to salvage his life is an overriding theme. It’s a message that hits home in a climate where joblessness is a common occurrence. Daniels’s involvement as a pawn is of little consequence, not unlike Paul Reiser in James Cameron’s Aliens, who carries with him an ulterior motive of what is to become of the gold once it is retrieved. That all changes when the submarine runs afoul with basins, trenches, and taking in water.

Black Sea is logically sound to a point with Macdonald taking his time in setting up the perilous adventure that happens in the third act. Where the narrative fails is in the character of Fraser. He’s a loose cannon and is the first to commit murder. Remorseless, Fraser is someone who should be untrusted. But when desperate situations arise Fraser is trusted in the interim. Then he becomes a reassuring presence a few scenes later, feeling Robinson is more than willing to risk the lives of his men to keep the gold at all costs. The fact that members of the crew side with Fraser is a leap in logic, especially with some on board fully aware that he’s likely to kill again when tempted.

Despite the mishandling of Fraser’s character, Black Sea is a solid, albeit dangerous voyage, that is competently anchored by Jude Law’s credible performance as a man driven to recapture his missed life as a husband and father.

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