Ah, late January. The last of the Oscar-bait movies have all opened nationally, abandoning us to a cinematic winter with little sign of thaw. The current aggregated percentiles at Rotten Tomatoes look almost like an inverse competition, with Taken 3 (10 percent) narrowly leading Mortdecai and The Boy Next Door (12 percent apiece) in a race to the bottom. Sorry, Strange Magic (17 percent); you tried your best.
That said, those moviegoers intent on testing the seasonal shallows may wish to dip a toe into Black Sea, director Kevin Macdonald’s high-pressure contribution to the submarine subgenre. Jude Law, sporting a magnificent Scottish brogue, stars as “Robinson”—this is a movie in which men are entitled to no more than a last name, and they’re lucky to have that much—a vessel captain who has been offhandedly cashiered by the marine salvage company to which he’s given 11 years of his life. “We don’t need a submarine pilot anymore,” a superior explains before telling him to clean out his desk. “We don’t even need a submarine.”
Over pints at the pub, however, a mate whom the company had laid off in a prior round lets Robinson in on a secret: There’s a sunken sub filled with long-lost gold—a bribe Stalin had tried to pay Hitler to forestall Nazi invasion—on the sea floor off the coast of Georgia. The territory has been disputed since the Russian invasion, and the company is awaiting resolution before attempting a salvage. But a man with the right skills and nothing to lose might be able to get there first.
So Robinson meets with a mysterious investor (Tobias Menzies from Rome and Game of Thrones) who agrees to front him the $180,000 to acquire a vintage Russian submarine. It sounds like far too little money—until you see the sub, which looks as though it could as easily have been acquired at a swap meet. Robinson crews the aging hulk with a motley band of unwanted souls: half Brits, half Russians, and all of them discarded by the global economy. (In its class consciousness, the movie bears a passing resemblance to such post-recessionary fare as Brassed Off and The Full Monty; its victims of capitalism merely go to greater lengths—or depths—to survive.) Rounding out the cast is Scoot McNairy, who plays a corporate flunky sent along by the investor—or what is otherwise known as "the Paul Reiser role." "This wreck’s gonna sink!" he exclaims, upon seeing the vessel. A crewmate responds drily: “Fuckin’ useless sub if it don’t.”
The hatches are scarcely sealed before tempers begin to flare. The Brits distrust the Russians and vice versa, and it’s not long before Robinson’s promise to give each man an equal share of the gold reaches its logical arithmetic endpoint: Fewer men equals larger shares. Black Sea is at its clumsiest when these conflicts tip into outright violence: The script (by Dennis Kelly) cuts emotional corners and relies too heavily on a crewmember, Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), who is initially introduced as a “psychopath,” and soon lives up to the billing. (The character is a perfect example of what I once termed the psycho ex machina.)
But weaknesses of plot aside, director Macdonald does a terrific job of capturing the claustrophobia at the core of every submarine movie, the sense of hull walls slowly closing in, of breathing air that’s already been in five other men’s mouths. As Robinson et al. approach their destination, the tension is ratcheted expertly: they must contend with Russia’s Black Sea fleet patrolling above them, with the substantial difficulties of transferring heavy cargo on the blackness of the sea floor, and with more than one technical calamity. And they must contend, of course, with one another.
Law is excellent as Robinson, even if the script paints his descent into Quint-like obsession in relatively broad strokes. He’s always been a fine actor, but for a time he seemed constrained by his good looks. As they’ve receded (along with his hairline), his physical presence has only grown more substantial: here, in last year’s Dom Hemingway, even in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (in which the idea that anyone could prefer Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s wispy Vronsky to Law’s Karenin failed to pass the laugh test). The rest of the cast—which also includes Konstantin Khabenskiy, Michael Smiley, Grigoriy Dobrygin, and Bobby Schofield—offer solid support, even if few of them make it to the final reel.
Black Sea is by no means a masterpiece, but it is a solid genre offering, a portrait of desperate men crammed together and surrounded on all sides by what one describes as “dark, cold death.” What better way to escape the midwinter doldrums?