Think submarine films, and historical dramas (Das Boot) or political thrillers (The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide) typically come to mind. Turns out you can take the dark, sweaty, claustrophobic environs of a sub and use them in a heist flick too.
Director Kevin Macdonald's Black Sea is a clever twist on both story types -- the confines of an old Russian submarine making the heist crew seem that much more dingy and desperate and the crew giving the rickety sub itself (rather than external threats) an element of mortal danger.
Jude Law stars as Robinson, the captain of a crew of 12. The crew is split down the middle between Brits and Russians, and most have some tie to a marine salvage company that, with the business changing, has let each of them go at some point recently. The crew is pursuing Nazi gold -- what else?! -- entombed in a U-boat at the bottom of the Black Sea, which, because of the international tensions in the region, can not be legally recovered by a legitimate operation like their old company.
Most of the crew are reminiscent of the men featured on Discovery's Deadliest Catch -- as crazy and broken as they are uniquely skilled. As a more experienced crew member tells the one greenhorn, they are much like penguins: swift, sleek, agile, glorious even below the surface, but always waddling awkwardly above it. But for Robinson specifically, the stakes are a bit higher. He blames the job and his old company for his personal failures (an estranged ex-wife and son), and so views this as an opportunity to get one over on the faceless suits back home as much as it is an opportunity for a life-changing score.
Robinson’s unusual personal investment in the mission leads to a string of judgment errors, beginning with his decision to tell the entire crew the size of their potential payday. And so sets in motion the submarine game theory that makes this such a compelling story for long stretches. The Russians believe the greenhorn on board, Tobin (Bobby Schofield), is bad luck. The Brits, led by Ben Mendelsohn’s unbalanced diver, Fraser, view an even split of the spoils as unfair, given how much farther the Russians’ payout will go in their home country. Everyone on board tacitly understands that losing a few men during the course of the mission would benefit each individual’s bottom line.
There is no central villain here, and the film is better for it. Rather, there is the increasing desperation of the voyage — the gold, compounded by a series of fatal moments, and then compounded again by the captain’s increasingly risky choices — that almost force villainous behavior upon Mendelsohn and then Law and finally upon Scoot McNairy’s Daniels, who is on board as a proxy for the financial backer of the expedition. There is shared blame when things go wrong, and, almost like a slasher flick, a building sense that, while Robinson and company may have been screwed by their company, they don’t collectively deserve to pull off this caper either.
It’s a bit of a mystery, then, trying to understand why there is so much sentimentality on the outskirts of the film — why Law keeps having visions of his wife and son, why Tobin keeps staring at the sonogram of his unborn son on his cell phone. Black Seahas a bleak, dark core with a thin veneer of schmaltz. I would have liked to see it plumb the depths a bit more — for the sub to feel that much more doomed and cramped. It might have felt more uncomfortable, but it probably would have been that much more memorable as well.