Broken down to its parts, “Black Sea” sounds like a predictable genre thriller with a kooky twist — it’s a heist film, set entirely in a submarine. But by combining elements of these classic genres, director Kevin MacDonald (“The Last King of Scotland“) has crafted an efficient and exciting old-school thriller that proves familiarity is nothing to be afraid of.
A laid-off English submarine captain (Jude Law) gets lured by his old buddies to assemble a team of professional submarine operators to find a lost, sunken U-boat filled with millions of dollars of Nazi gold. Since the submarine they will need to use to accomplish this is Russian, Law assembles a crew of half Brits and half Russians.
As soon as the vessel begins its journey, the two groups of men are at each other’s throats. Law says from the start that each man will get an equal share of the bounty, and this doesn’t sit well with some crewmembers who deem themselves more essential than others. Why should a homeless teenage boy (recruited by Law at the last minute) get the same amount of money as the hulking Russian who does all the heavy lifting?
Jude Law is presented as a sort of working-class-hero: In his first dialogue exchange, we learn he’s been working on submarines for over 30 years, and that he essentially lost his wife and kid to the job. When the opportunity for “one last big score” comes up, he has no reason not to abandon what little is left of his life and just go for it.
The majority of “Black Sea” takes place on the submarine itself, and the camera work makes the audience feel just as confined as the men on the boat. These men are far from civilized and all have severe tunnel vision about the mission at hand.
It’s not long before the actions of one rogue man put the lives of those onboard and the mission itself in jeopardy, and from that point forward, there’s no telling what may happen next. It becomes a matter of life and death rather than a matter of becoming rich. The cinematography is gorgeous in spite of all this ugliness, and there are some particularly chilling shots when some men leave the boat to find the gold.
It’s hard not to compare the film to those that inspired it, as Law’s descent into madness is reminiscent of the Humphrey Bogart classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” And there’s a “company man” character pulling the strings (Scoot McNairy, in his most obnoxious role yet) that feels airlifted out of James Cameron’s “Aliens.”
“Black Sea” is an amalgam of submarine thrillers and “one-last-job” heist films that succeeds on all fronts, borrowing ideas we’ve seen before and executing them so well that they feel new again. In January, a “dump month” utilized by studios to unload their disasters (“Mortdecai,” “Strange Magic“), “Black Sea” sticks out like a Russian sub and is easily the best 2015 release thus far.
“Black Sea” is now playing in limited release and will expand wide Friday, Jan. 30.
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