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Black Sea
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by Jay Seaver

"Great when hunting treasure, less so when fighting among themselves."
3 stars

The basic ingredients of "Black Sea" don't appeal to everyone, but it's got claustrophobic subs, lost Nazi gold, an underwater setting that can look like an alien landscape, and grizzled ex-Navy types who respond to an investor representative's worries that the ship will sink with "it'd be a useless f---ing submarine if it didn't". It's maybe not quite the ideal arrangement of those things, but good enough for an afternoon's thrills.

The first piece to fall in place is Robinson (Jude Law), a Scottish submarine pilot being laid off after more than ten years with an underwater salvage company. He's commiserating with fellow downsizing victims Blackie (Konstantin Khabenskiy) and Kurston (Daniel Ryan) about lousy job prospects when Kurston mentions something he spotted in the Black Sea a year ago - a WWII U-boat that sank while carrying over two tons of gold that the Soviets sent Germany as a loan before the two were at war, ripe for the taking since ownership of the area is disputed between Russia and Georgia. Soon enough, they're underway with a half-British, half-Russian crew, although the Russians want nothing to do with Tobin (Bobby Schofield), an 18-year-old kid who takes Kurston's place, and nobody cares for Daniels (Scoot McNairy), the "banker" there to represent the investors' interests.

And then there's the likes of Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), who is the best diver for this sort of job but also a pot-stirrer, which the other twelve people in a rusty Soviet-era sub don't really need. To a certain extent, the movie doesn't need it either; there's more than enough inherent peril to the situation to make for an exciting adventure without setting the crew at each other's throat. That's especially true when you consider that Dennis Kelly's script often seems to raise, drop, and reconfigure those tensions in fairly arbitrary ways: Fraser will throw the ship into utter calamity, but then there will be remarkably little tension when the movie needs him to just be an expert diver. Daniels is an afterthought for much of the movie. The practical difficulties of the two halves of the crew not being able to understand each other because only Blackie is bilingual and he's out of action are not an issue for very long.

When Kelly and director Kevin Macdonald focus on the nuts and bolts of a daring underwater heist, on the other hand, things get pretty great. Macdonald has an eye for the mechanics of this job, and while the specifics can be daunting, he's pretty good at communicating what is going on clearly. It can be tricky to show the audience things while still getting across that the people in the sub are limited in their perceptions by the gifted ears of sonar operator Baba (Sergey Veksler), but he manages it, and what we do get to see is often nifty, from a half-buried U-boat to the horror movie imagery that sneaks in around the corners.

It's a dirty, claustrophobic environment, with times where everything seems to vaguely be the color of machine oil, and the cast fits right into that, mostly a weathered-looking group with dry, often hostile, working-class wit. The Russians fit the bill the best, with Sergey Veksler, Sergey Puskepalis, and Grigoriy Dobrygin making their characters suitably wary of their British counterparts but still doing solid character work despite not talking a lot and the film mostly happening from the English-speakers' perspective. Even if they and the Brits don't much seem to like each other, they clearly come from the same sort of place, even if it comes out differently, whether from David Threlfall's old hand or Ben Mendelsohn's psycho diver. In contrast to these working men of the sea, Scoot McNairy never seems to leap out as Daniels - McNairy always seems like a guy who should crush this sort of part, but never quite does.

Jude Law is in the center as Robinson, and it's a tough place to be, not just because the Scots accent initially seems wrong coming out of his mouth. There's something almost there about his performance as Robinson that isn't necessarily on him, as he hits the bitterness of a guy who has lost everything he holds dear well from the start, and even does well with Robinson's latching onto Tobin as a surrogate son even though it seems out of place in practical terms, but he has a hard time birthin an obsession out of those two parents as the film needs it, perhaps because we've been seeing them in turn rather than in parallel. He plays well off relative newcomer Bobby Schofield, though, and Schofield does a nice job of making Tobin more than just a reminder of how Robinson's life went wrong.

It's all shot on an actual Soviet sub that looks authentic and cramped while still giving the filmmakers room to work and have things look good, making for a dirty but well-made movie. "Black Sea" is not quite the best undersea adventure you'll ever see, but it's certainly got its moments, enough to make it worth a big-screen trip for fans of the genre.

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originally posted: 02/02/15 05:35:36
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  23-Jan-2015 (R)
  DVD: 05-May-2015

  05-Dec-2014 (15)

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