Take a dangerous group of men and trap them in a lethal environment with the promise of seemingly infinite riches at their fingertips.
It’s a tried and tested premise that’s been been striking sparks since The Treasure of the Sierra Madre almost seventy years ago. Set it aboard a Russian submarine and throw in two tonnes of sunken Nazi gold and it should be the perfect recipe for a suspenseful adventure flick.
Directed by Last King of Scotland’s Kevin Macdonald, Black Sea sees recently laid-off submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law with a committed if wavering Aberdonian accent) descend to the ocean bed with a customary crew of desperate misfits.
There’s the trouble-making Antipodean, Frazer (Ben Mendelsohn), soft-headed crew “virgin” Tobin (Scouse newcomer Bobby Schofield), nervous money man Daniels (Scoot McNairy), the wry, faintly aggressive Reynolds (Michael Smiley), wheezing old-timer Peters (David Threlfall), and an equal number of mostly disposable Russians.
With an estimated $40 million at stake and equal shares on the line, aboard an antiquated death-trap of a ship, a certain amount of tension is inevitable. The film’s script, however – from Utopia creator Dennis Kelly – quickly breaks down into a series of crises, both human and technical. Just when a scenario seems likely to yield dramatic fruit – like the mention of hoarding by factions on either ends of the sub – the film neatly resolves it and moves onto the next. Dynamos whir, chains clank, pressure gauges rise and fall, and Russians mutter angrily, but Black Sea never quite builds.
Similarly, Macdonald’s static camera set-ups break the ship down into a number of different environments – the control room, the galley, the sleeping quarters – but, in doing so, sacrifices the feeling of claustrophobia a more continuous style might have generated.
Even when the crew members venture out into the blue-black depths, the film never manages to summon up the weight of water pressing down upon them. The reveal of a certain infamous symbol released from a layer of mud generates an Indiana Jones-like thrill, but the film is resolutely too restrained to capitalize on it.
Law, in a role that seems more suited to Robert Carlyle, proves an able lead as a tightly-coiled but increasingly unhinged class warrior who’s lost his family to the job and Mendelsohn perform is one of hangdog unpredictability. Even so, Black Sea is mostly content to sail under the radar.
If neither quite Das Boot nor The Italian Job, Macdonald’s film still provides at least a few fathoms of undersea entertainment.