Black Sea

black-sea-poster

Disgruntled Scot, Captain Robinson (Jude Law), is an embittered man with a chip on his shoulder. His main gripe is with the submarine haulage company that’s just heartlessly disposed of him after years of loyal service. His days of employment haven’t been especially kind: a lost wife and child attest to the fallout from his dedication. During a bitching session in a pub with mates, Robinson’s interest is sparked by a similarly offloaded mate who puts in motion a plan to exact some retribution by claiming a big pay day. It involves taking a punt on the possible existence of a long sunken cargo of Nazi gold off the Ukrainian coast. Heavy hitting financial backers are needed and Robinson is put in touch with a man in a suit, Daniels (Scoot McNairy), who’s able to open doors to the necessary investors. Soon Robinson and a select crew, half of which are Russians, are boarding a rusty old submarine of their own to set sail for vast and deep black waters in search of the ultimate payoff. Naturally the voyage will encounter severe hiccups along the way and not every crew member will have the necessary skills to survive.

Director Kevin Macdonald’s new film, written by Dennis Kelly, explores very familiar ideas of greed and redemption as it ramps up suspense and expectation in the claustrophobic confines of the sub. It does so with considerable conviction, however. Greed is an endlessly explored cinematic concept. Here the gold becomes the carrot luring our crew onwards into darker terrain, but human nature being what it is – corruptible, unsustainable and uncontainable – violence is guaranteed to rear its ugly head. Notions of equality and an equal distribution of wealth evaporate just as quickly. The underlying idea of greed consuming a mind, as in John Huston’s eternal classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), for example, leads as easily to madness as physical interference.

Much of the film’s success can be attributed to Law who’s able to project a resoluteness and intestinal fortitude with his surprisingly steely presence. Never once do you doubt his command of the mission, even as it threatens to run off the rails. The disturbed psychology of Ben Mendelsohn’s Fraser is offered as an early warning sign of trouble and though he’s given no depth of character into which to expand his range, Fraser’s presence at least acts as a transformer sparking perilous openings into which the narrative can sinuously progress.

McNairy has proven to be a chameleon since his breakout in Gareth Edwards’s brilliant Monsters (2010), often disappearing into roles both large and small, like Killing Them Softly (2012) and The Rover (2014). He was almost unrecognisable in Argo (2012), but turns that full circle here a variation on the type of corporate, out-of-his-depth straight man. He’s the kind of guy whose lofty ideals and loyalty to his employers see him doggedly attempting to turn the tide of increasing irrationality toward a sensible, cogent resolution – well beyond the point when, clearly, any such thing is possible. We’ve seen this archetype before of course, in films like Aliens (1986), as played by Paul Reiser.

Drawing on classic works attributable to the submarine sub-genre of suspense films like Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), Tony Scott’s testosterone battle Crimson Tide (1995) and Jonathan Mostow’s underrated U-571 (2000), Macdonald’s latest does a fine job of building upon its solid premise. Though never forgetting to hit its spots with the requisite number of twists, the film makes us believe in the dynamics of the group and the stakes of survival whilst caring about the fate of a central character who, though never expressly positioned as a hero, displays credible heroic tendencies.

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Black Sea opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, April 9.

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