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Film review: Black Sea ***

By Preston Wilder

What do you get when a submarine drama also wants to be a heist movie, a Full Monty riff and a cry of working-class rage against “bankers” and other culprits? The answer is Black Sea, in which Jude Law as ‘Robinson’ (there are no first names in this film) leads a multi-ethnic crew, made up almost entirely of middle-aged men who’ve been laid off, on a hunt for Nazi gold. The men had good macho jobs, toiling in steelyards or marine salvage, but now they’re reduced to menial work, or no work at all; at least one has been “in and out of jail”. We’ve been treated like shit, snarls Robinson – but “this time,” he adds, in a line that’s been quoted in practically every review of the film, “the shit is fighting back!”.

That’s one angle. Another is a possible dig at multi-culti Britain – because the crew instantly divide along ethnic lines. The gold is in a Nazi U-boat at the bottom of the Black Sea, so Jude commandeers a rusty old submarine in order to extract it, going down stealthily to avoid being spotted by the Russian fleet. His crew are half-British, half-Russian (why the Russians are needed isn’t really explained) and ethnic animosity begins almost at once, from sleeping arrangements – the Russkies eject a Brit from “our side” of the cabin – to the sharing-out of the loot, which Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) insists is unfair because of the weaker rouble. And meanwhile they’re all crammed together in a rusty old submarine, and “outside it’s just dark, cold death”.

That’s the other angle, indeed it’s the most important angle – the taut claustrophobia from Das Boot and all the other submarine dramas, spiced with salty sailor talk (“Boats are like whores, the old ones know how to look after you best,” cackles one Russian mariner). The actual heist is surprisingly straightforward, enough to make you wonder how the Nazi sub remained undetected for 70 years, but Black Sea scores on the simmering tension between the men, their joy at being useful again – “It’s mad down here,” says Scoot McNairy as a wimpy accountant type; “It is, but it makes sense,” replies a sailor – and the nuts and bolts of the ship itself (the “tubes”, the engine room), a reminder that director Kevin Macdonald started out in documentaries.

There’s a lot to recommend about this film. It’s almost a cracking good yarn – yet it’s also a near-miss, ultimately failing to convince when it matters most. There are early signs of dodgy plotting. Robinson brings a teenager into the crew, and the Russians are uneasy because it’s bad luck to have a virgin on board; in fact, the young man isn’t a virgin (he’s going to be a dad) – but Robinson doesn’t share this news with the superstitious crewmen, which you’d think he would. Not a big deal, admittedly – but a sign of things to come as we head into the more intense second half, with a mounting body count and the ship in permanent crisis mode.

Annoyingly, the film uses Fraser – who’s been tagged from the start as a “psycho” – as a get-out-of-jail-free card, having him propel the plot forward with actions so extreme they beggar belief. How did someone so unstable ever hold down a job as a seaman? It’s not fatal but it seems over-convenient, a case of ‘Third act coming up, we need a major reversal, let’s have the psycho go nuts again!’. The final act also turns rational Daniels (that’s Scoot) into an unlikely villain, coming after a big twist that makes thematic sense (think working-class rage and evil bankers) but still feels contrived – and meanwhile Law, fresh off Dom Hemingway and the new glowering-macho phase of his career, is making Robinson increasingly obsessive, though more Captain Kirk than Captain Ahab. The whole thing feels forced, not helped by Macdonald’s flashy direction and penchant for extreme close-ups.

It’s a strange sort of week at the multiplex, both our new films being neither sequels nor blockbusters nor Oscar winners. Both this and Focus [see opposite page] are actually very enjoyable – but they’re foot-soldiers, flawed-but-solid flicks that tend to fall between the cracks in a crowded marketplace, doomed to be released in late February and quickly forgotten. I actually enjoyed the underwater-walk sequence here (“Lose the gold!”), or the escalating bets with the Asian millionaire in Focus, more than anything in The Hunger Games or the Thor franchise – but a brilliant set-piece isn’t really enough anymore, not unless you’re a brand-name. Black Sea is ambitious and exciting, a downbeat adventure story with something to say – but it’s also patchy, and once or twice inadequate. Alas, it only takes one leak to sink a submarine.

 

DIRECTED BY Kevin Macdonald

STARRING Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn

UK/US/Germany 2015           114 mins

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