One can sometimes discern the quality of a film based on its release date. Movies released from September to December are usually those relevant to the Academy Awards. January is something of a dumping ground for the most uninspired and maligned that the film industry has to offer. If a film is considered risky by producers, if a film is of poor quality or of little public interest, it is shown at the beginning of the year so that it may die a swift, quiet death, costing its investors as little as possible. “Black Sea” is a welcome addition to Hollywood’s usual serving of mid-winter crap, and is a solidly-made thriller, albeit one which slips too often into cliché.
Jude Law’s Robinson has just been let go from his marine salvage job. He’s dedicated his life to his work, even sacrificing the affection of his wife and son, who he becomes estranged from after she packs up and leaves. Unemployed and knowing nothing but submarines, he embarks on a mission to find a German U-boat and the millions of dollars worth in gold that it carries at the bottom of the sea. A ragtag crew of British and Russian sailors and shipmen—among them Frasier, a volatile diver, and Daniels, a company yes-man overseeing the expedition for his boss, the adventure’s primary investor—set off for the Georgian coast.
Most of the film takes place on the submarine, and director Kevin Macdonald makes good use of space and lighting. He manages to keep things moving and maintains the audience’s interest despite the restricted use to three or four rooms. Jude Law gives a fine performance, as do Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as Frasier and Daniels, respectively. The rest of the cast, however, is given little to do. The Russian sailors are flat and uninteresting, only occupying roles within the crew that advance the plot.
The film eventually lapses into familiar territory. Robinson is constantly preaching to his crew that they are not dirt, not worthless, that they must rebel against “them.” He refers often to “them,” a conglomeration of the rich and powerful who do all they can to keep others “crawling on their bellies in the dirt.” Whatever class system commentary screenwriter Dennis Kelly tries to layer his film with is ineffective. More often than not I felt bored, preached to in the most unsubtle and vulgar of ways about the evil of capitalism. “Black Sea” is now the umpteenth movie that attempts to tackle economic hardship, yet fails to do so with the necessary subtlety. Audiences hate being spoken down to, and in its ambition to rise above its pedestrian structure, “Black Sea” loses its sense of purpose. It’s a midlevel action thriller feigning complexity and importance.
When it’s not overstepping its all-too-obvious boundaries, however, the film succeeds. In particular, the sequence in which the men reach the U-boat and transport the gold back to the submarine is well done, suspenseful, and effective. I would’ve liked to see more of the crew outside the sub. The traversing of the ocean floor reminded me very much of the derelict space ship investigation in “Alien” as far as its atmosphere. Herein lies the issue. Too much of the film is spent on a parable of greed. I’ve seen enough treasure hunt movies that I can see coming from far away such a familiar set-up: the crew is endangered yet favors the possibility of wealth rather than safety. This is reinforced by Robinson’s memories of his family frolicking on the beach, a happier time far in the past. Despite how underdeveloped this plotline ends up being, it is enough, combined with Jude Law’s performance, to make Robinson a moving character, at the very least deserving of our attention.
This is not a film that will end up on anyone’s “Best of the Year” list, nor is it a career highlight for anyone involved. Law, McNairy, and Mendelsohn have all better impressed in other films, and Kevin Macdonald’s style fails to work as effectively as it did in “The Last King of Scotland.” However, by the time the credits roll, one doesn’t feel slighted or cheated as one might after several other less than stellar options. I cannot see myself watching this again unless there’s a slow day and I happen across it on cable, but I would recommend it over most other films in theaters at the moment. It’s a lukewarm recommendation, but hey, it’s January. What do you expect?
Review by Lucas Dispoto