by Matt Boyd Smith
I’m a fan of sea-faring adventure in general. I like a salty U-boat tale, I think Master and Commander deserves to have a much higher cultural standing than it does, and Moby Dick is one of the Great American Novels which is actually deserving of the title. My favorite American author is Hemingway, and I am constantly fascinated by treasure hunting at sea. One of the best comic books out right now is The Mercenary Sea by , an epic tale of submarine adventure set amidst the backdrop of the Pacific leading up to WWII Kel Symons and Mathew Reynolds, that follows a crew as they search for a lost island filled with gold. In short, I’m telling you that series is a must-read. All of this is just to set you up for this revelation: I pretty much loved everything about Black Sea in spite of some glaring problems.
Unceremoniously dropped in the middle of January – the doldrums of the theatrical release schedule even in these days of increasingly risky moves away from the three summer months for blockbusters and tentpole pictures – Black Sea is actually worth a look. It’s not perfect, but it is exciting, intense, and is buoyed by a top-notch performance from Jude Law, who has finally entered the phase of his career where he’s returned to acting instead of ill-fated attempts at mainstream stardom.
The film opens with Robinson (Law) learning that he is being let go from his job as the captain of a deep sea salvage vessel. His former employers offer a meager sum of money as severance (£8,000) after eleven years, and he is left on his own with no job prospects and staring at a future in fast food square in the face. One afternoon, while getting drinks at the pub with his friends Blackie (Konstantin Khablensky) and Kurston (Daniel Ryan), who are both former sailors. Kurston informs Robinson he may know of a way to make some money: before he was laid off by the same company, he discovered an odd sonar hit which he and the company were certain was a long-lost submarine which sank to the bottom of the Black Sea as it departed Nazi Germany with nearly $40 million in gold in the final days of World War II. The company was never able to recover the wreckage, however, due to the outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia, which had control of the waters where the sub had been found.
Robinson puts together a crew – half British, half Russian – and buys a decommissioned sub from Ukraine, and sets sail into the Black Sea to find the lost treasure. His plan is to find the submarine, send a dive team onto the vessel, and to have them bring the gold back on board his ship. It’s a simple plan that becomes unbelievably complicated, beginning with the differences between the Brits and the Russians on the boat and the burgeoning disagreement over their payment, which Robinson has promised will be an equal split among all crew. Eventually this leads to a building distrust and a resultant killing. This sets into motion a chain of events which finds the submarine and its crew marooned at the bottom of the sea, saved from crushing depth by landing on a ridge…possibly the same ridge as their quarry. Robinson slowly devolves into madness, obsessed with taking the gold back at all costs, even at the risk of his entire crew’s lives. The pressure to succeed financially and get one over on his ex-employers drives him to turn a blind eye to all the building tension on board his ship. He is focused on one thing only, and his actions ultimately end up endangering everyone on board.
In general the film functions as a statement on contemporary economic situations and the ways corporations take advantage of their workers, bleeding them dry and leaving them with nothing. The crew of the sub are all people who don’t fit into a corporatized world, who are at home on the sea, but otherwise have nothing going for them. The world, specifically the tenets of capitalism, does not care about them or their plight, whether it’s their ability to pay bills, eat regularly, maintain healthy interpersonal relationships, or avoid simply killing themselves so as not to damage anyone else they care about in their personal lives. The class commentary comes to the fore here, and the film doesn’t really let up. These men are driven by greed because they’ve been consistently mistreated, which has bred a distrust of others within them that may be inherent to the working class they belong to. The film has a negative view of this, but perhaps suggests that there can be no real reconciliation in this instance because the current capitalist system has ingrained the idea of competition and individualism within the lower classes. That’s kind of a radical thing for a film to say.
The plot and the script are very old-fashioned in their sensibilities and there are admittedly some unbelievable turns of events and moments of incredible stupidity which are concocted in order to move the story alone. And yes, Black Sea is basically an amalgam of just about every other submarine movie of the last fifty years. Nonetheless, director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) crafts some very tense moments of chair-gripping suspense, and the movie makes the most of its best asset: the cast and the cinematography. The acting is terrific, Jude Law in particular turning in a great performance as the down-on-his-luck captain, and the movie looks about as good as a movie set inside of a submerged, windowless rust bucket can.
I say go see this one. Maybe check it out on VOD or rent it from iTunes or Redbox. If this sounds like a movie you’d be interested in, you’re probably right. Not the best thing I’ve ever seen by a long shot, but a serviceable thriller with some nice touches. And it is certainly one of the better movies to have come out theatrically in the past month. In fact, it’s probably the only truly adult thriller to be released in the U.S. in the whole of January. Recommended.
3.5 out of 5 stars