Black Sea is rather shamelessly assembled from the parts of other movies, but at least it managed to pick some pretty good parts. Melding the conventions of submarine movies like Crimson Tide and K-19: The Widowmaker with the conventions of greed-fueled dramas like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and A Simple Plan, Black Sea often feels like the submarine at its center: rusty and creaky, but just solid enough to get the job done. It's not a great submarine movie and it's not a great crime drama, but it's a pretty satisfying combination of the two.
Unlike most submarine films, this one isn't built around some sort of international crisis. Instead, it begins with the simple act of corporate heartlessness. Robinson (Jude Law, The Talented Mr. Ripley) has manned a submarine for a sea-salvage company for years, but now he's outlived his usefulness and is being let go. “This isn't about job performance,” the pencil-pushing executive says, explaining that most of the things Robinson is good at can now be handled by robots. Robinson is handed a paltry settlement check and is sent on his way.
Fortunately, an opportunity quickly presents itself. One of Robinson's pals has learned the location of a sunken German U-boat from WWII. Allegedly, the U-boat is filled with Nazi gold. The U-boat is sitting off the coast of Georgia, but political complications have prevented Robinson's company from retrieving it. Working independently, it might be easy enough for Robinson to sneak in there and get it himself. The only problem: he needs a submarine.
A secretive investor named Lewis (Tobais Menzies, Casino Royale) offers to back Robinson's mission, providing a (beat-up, but still operable) submarine and crew (in exchange for a hefty percentage of the gold, of course). Robinson agrees, and soon a band of gruff, greedy men are eagerly embarking upon an exciting secret mission. Robinson informs the dozen or so crew members that every man will receive an equal share of the gold. The only problem? It doesn't take before people start figuring out that fewer people means a bigger share. I trust you can imagine where things go from there.
Law has turned into a remarkably interesting actor as he's gotten older, leaning away from the sort of blandly attractive characters he played early in his career and digging into meaty, distinctive character roles. Imagine Bogart with a Scottish brogue and you've got a pretty good idea of his performance here – his Robinson is a world-weary man whose weariness is quickly transforming into bitterness. Law is surrounded by a handful of fine characters actors, with Scoot McNairy (Non-Stop) and Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline) standing out as two of the more memorable supporting players. The former is Lewis' right-hand man, a nervous suit sent along to monitor the mission. The latter is the most immediately menacing member of the crew; the guy who seems most likely to do something reckless in a moment of passion. Sometimes these men turn out to be exactly who we expect them to be, and sometimes they reveal themselves as something else entirely.
Most of the big suspense scenes feel like variations on moments we've seen before (“we're approaching crush depth!” is a common refrain in submarine flicks), but director Kevin Macdonald is gifted enough to put a few knots in your stomach, anyway. Somewhere around the halfway point, Black Sea really finds its groove and begins its inevitable descent into a scenario that sees men forced to find desperate solutions to desperate problems. The soundtrack has a way of getting under your skin too, as the rumbling and rattling of the sub successfully conjures feelings of being slowly digested by a metal beast.
Black Sea gives you your money's worth up to a point, but doesn't quite have the nerve to deliver the ruthlessly bleak conclusion the story demands. The climax attempts to make a hard right turn into sentimental territory, but it doesn't quite work because Macdonald hasn't done quite enough to make the endgame developments resonate. It's a soft finish to a hard movie, but otherwise Black Sea is a worthy genre-blending (if not genre-bending) effort.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Year: 2015