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Maritime Law

Focus Features
 113 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Kevin McDonald
Starring: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy
Black Sea

Modern technology has been a great boon to film makers in many ways, but it has also made certain types of movies practically obsolete. You won’t see a 21st century version of Pillow Talk any time soon, for example. One such vanishing genre is the old fashioned submarine thriller—highly claustrophobic movies like Das Boot or Run Silent, Run Deep in which a group of men (these movies nearly invariably had all-male casts onboard) in cramped, uncomfortable surroundings, faced the possibility of dying in an instant in the most horrible way possible. Fortunately, the genre isn’t dead yet, as evidenced by Black Sea, by far the best action film of this new year. 


Although in many ways Black Sea is a throwback to the World War II era, it’s definitely a product of the current century. When the movie begins, its main character, Captain Robinson (Jude Law) is facing a very contemporary problem. He’s worked for a big maritime salvage company for years, but he’s recently been let go quite abruptly and has virtually no job prospects other than menial labor. However, his prospects improve when an old pal tells him about a sunken Nazi submarine off the coast of Georgia in the Black Sea. The U-boat was supposedly carrying a cargo of gold bars, that’s been available for the taking for the last 70 years, so Robinson decides to go after it.


Of course, he needs money, a ship, and a crew. A wealthy entrepreneur provides the first of these, in exchange for a big cut of the take. Robinson also locates a surplus Soviet submarine for sale that can be refitted just enough for the mission. His plan is simple: sail underwater to the U-boat’s location, transfer the gold to his own sub, and sail away to safety under the noses of the constantly patrolling surface ships. He also assembles a ragtag skeleton crew of fellow naval castoffs, half Russian and half British.


When they set sail, both the ship and the crew are barely holding together. Neither the Russians nor the British like or trust the other group very much. The worst of them is Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), the lead diver, who is a nearly certifiable, xenophobic psycho. When Robinson tells the crew they will all get equal shares in the treasure, tensions escalate even more. He also winds up with two non-sailors onboard as well. The first is Daniels (Scoot McNairy), a representative of the job’s financier, who’s there to safeguard his boss’s interests. The second is Tobin (Bobby Schofield), the teenage son of the man who tipped Robinson off about the treasure.


There’s not much character development in Black Sea. Robinson is a decent but rather stoic character, but one who has difficulty coping with the loss of both his career and his family (his wife has recently left him). Many of the other characters are barely one-dimensional, defined either by their jobs (the sonar man) or a basic character trait (the old guy with health problems). Even Daniels performs a stereotypical function in the movie, that of the voice of doom, who, when things get tough, panics and tries to get the others to abandon the mission and save their skins.


And things do get tough in Black Sea almost immediately. Tensions between the crew factions escalate, and Fraser loses his head and kills one of the Russians. In the chaos that ensues, the sub’s engines are badly damaged and it sinks, landing close to the German submarine. Robinson still thinks he can repair the sub and finish the mission. The crew does recover the gold, but getting it and the sub back to the surface will be even more difficult than arriving safely at the sunken U-Boat.


Although the crew as individuals aren’t all that interesting, veteran director Kevin McDonald keeps viewers invested in them by successfully painting them as downtrodden victims of the modern economy, a group of Davids taking on the salvage company Goliath. The script emphasizes the point by having Jude Law deliver impassioned rallying speeches to the crew, reminding them that the gold represents their last opportunity to make something out of their lives.


Of course, as you might expect, a number of those lives don’t last very long. The body count begins to rise dramatically, and there’s soon a question whether there will be enough people left to sail the ship. Dennis Kelly’s script is just original enough to keep viewers guessing about what’s going to happen. Unlike most movies of this genre, Black Sea generates and holds suspense because viewers genuinely don’t know who will survive or what the movie’s outcome will be.


Somewhat surprisingly, McDonald develops tension in the movie by violating one of Alfred Hitchcock’s basic rules of suspense. Sometimes, he takes his time in letting a scene develop, as in the extended diving sequence, in which underwater characters naturally move in slow motion. However, at other times, bad things happen almost immediately upon the occurrence of some mishap, before viewers even realize what’s going on. These sudden shifts in tone and pace keep viewers off guard.


Black Sea is not a great movie, but it’s a solid, well made one with no howlingly bad scenes and a fast pace that keeps viewer interest throughout. The look and feel of the submarine are quite authentic, and director McDonald conveys the claustrophobic feel and ever present sense of danger throughout. In a way, it works better as a January release, since it’s a viable alternative for theatergoers at a time when there’s little else of this nature available. You wouldn’t want to take a cruise on Skipper Law’s sub, but you won’t mind the guided tour you get onscreen.

Read other reviews of Black Sea:


Black Sea (2014) on IMDb