It isn't the smartest or most exciting thriller that viewers will have seen but, thanks to a quality cast and a fresh setup, Black Sea is still an entertaining watch.
Black Sea follows former Royal Navy Captain Robinson (Jude Law) and a crew of ex-submarine engineers who risk their lives to steal a multi-million dollar payday from a previous employer - a greedy marine salvage company. Following a decade of service captaining corporate submarine crews, at the expense of his personal life, Robinson is unceremoniously fired from his job. After receiving a mediocre severance package, with no clear path forward for work, a former colleague provides Robinson with sensitive information regarding a lost treasure at the bottom of the Black Sea - a Nazi U-boat containing millions in World War II-era gold bricks.
Tied-up in red-tape, thanks to an unstable political climate in the region, marine salvage companies have been unable to legally find, much less obtain, the gold. With a private backer, Robinson puts together a crew of underwater specialists (half English/half Russian) to pilot a derelict submarine underneath a Russian naval fleet - in order to steal the gold without being detected. However, when tensions rise among the submarine's crew, as unscrupulous members of the team begin to realize that less men means a greater cut of the heist, Robinson is forced to keep his crew focused (not to mention alive) deep below the ocean's surface.
Black Sea was directed by Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (known best for The Last King of Scotland) from a script by TV writer Dennis Kelly (Utopia) and, despite some bland character arcs as well as a few moments that require significant suspension of disbelief, the film ultimately succeeds as an engaging dramatic thriller - with a noteworthy premise. Macdonald attempts to flesh out the submarine crew, and communicate a larger story about the glory and perils of self-determination, but Black Sea is at its strongest (and most coherent) when delivering tense situations and unique obstacles for its characters to overcome. Clearly the filmmaker had a more ambitious character story in mind but the movie's claustrophobic/underwater setting is what truly sets Black Sea apart from similar stories of high concept thievery.
As a result, many of the core characters fall into standard "sea dog" cliches - from a gruff Russian engine worker to an untested "virgin" team member, a brackish cook, and a mentally unstable sociopath. The story is layered with thematic parallels, especially the relationship between Robinson and new guy Liam (Karl Davies) - who have both taken-on the risky gig to secure a brighter future for their respective sons. Unfortunately, clumsy development (which prioritizes moving the story forward over distinct character arcs) hinders Macdonald's attempts at diving below the surface of the primary thriller story. This isn't to say that audiences won't care about the characters or their challenges but, more often than not, each one is defined by their function on the ship rather than who they are - beyond basic outlining.
Nevertheless, Law gives a solid lead performance (and mostly believable Scottish accent) in the film - setting aside his pretty boy persona in favor of prickly character work (that is slightly more grounded than his zany Dom Hemingway). The director ultimately underserves Robinson's overall arc (especially in the third act) but Law is sound from scene to scene - managing to imbue the submarine Captain with more nuance than the film inherently provides.
As mentioned, the supporting cast is a jumbled mix of talented actors that, depending on how much time is actually dedicated to their respective character, range from functional to entirely forgettable. Most of the side players are simply cogs in Black Sea's plot - designed to create (or be the victim of) drama. Some are afforded more to do than others, notably Russian/English middleman Blackie (Konstantin Khabensky), Robinson's longtime friend Reynolds (Michael Smiley), and de facto Russian crew leader Morozov (Grigoriy Dobrygin); whereas, corporate liaison Daniels (Scoot McNairy) and deep sea diver Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), especially, fall into the category of half-baked cliches that shift and bend to the will of the plot rather than clear personal motivations.
Still, given the film's unique setting, certain cast members are furnished with memorable moments (simply because of their role within the armored walls of the submarine) - even if their characters aren't particularly fleshed-out. For that reason, a figure like sonar operator Baba (Sergey Veksler) is extremely interesting to watch - despite little insight into his backstory or shoreside personality. To that end, Macdonald's biggest triumph in Black Sea is successfully setting the stage for things to go wrong - by ensuring early sequences pull double-duty: teaching the audience about the submarine, its mechanisms and its crew, while also offering witty banter between the characters. Consequently, once all the pieces are defined (and in place), the filmmaker is then free to inject conflict and repercussion - without slowing down to explain what the fallout will mean for Robinson and his team.
That said, those who are hoping for a high octane thriller may walk away from Black Sea somewhat underwhelmed - since the movie spends a significant amount of its runtime on explosive confrontations rather than exploding objects. Macdonald's latest is exciting, with some genuinely intriguing set pieces, but much of the movie's thrills come from tense interactions between the characters as well as clever sequences that, given the submarine heist premise, have not been depicted before on screen (rather than overt scenes of action spectacle).
It isn't the smartest or most exciting thriller that viewers will have seen but, thanks to a quality cast and a fresh setup, Black Sea is still an entertaining watch - despite a number of noticeable shortcomings. At times, the film struggles to find the right balance between thrills and drama - resulting in a somewhat bloated heist movie and/or undercooked tale of self-determination. Yet, thanks to tight pacing, and genuinely interesting setting, Macdonald should have little trouble keeping audiences engaged throughout Robinson's journey into the Black Sea.
Black Sea runs 115 minutes and is Rated R for language throughout, some graphic images and violence. Now playing in theaters.
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