Excellent submarine thrillers like Black Sea get much of their visceral oomph from making it seem as if the camera operator — standing in for us — is just as constrained as the characters. Now he’s trudging along narrow corridors, now staring up from below (his head on the steel floor) or down from above (his backside bumping the ceiling), never in a place where he can give us a long view or wide vista. From the camera’s tight vantage you can smell the sour, dead air and the reek of unhygienic men whose fight-or-flight instincts are constantly engaged — because confinement at skull-crushing depths can make you desperate to get out.
Black Sea adds yet more reasons to fight or fly: irrational greed borne of economic desperation; a rusted-out Russian vessel from another era; an ongoing collision of cultures (Brit and Russki); and the presence of a psychopath who starts coming apart (and fingering his knife) before the hatch even thunks to a close. “It gets a man thinkin’ that he’s gonna fuckin’ die,” says one man who will, and you know where he’s coming from.
It begins when Jude Law as a scowling Scottish submarine captain called Robinson gets sacked after more than a decade (“They think we’re shit ...”) and discovers a way to stick it to the company that's done it. (“This time, the shit is fighting back!”) Since washing out as a pretty-boy leading man, Law is what he always should have been: a high-strung character actor. In Black Sea, he’s convincingly hard, like Jason Statham with more vocal colors and without the shtick.
Robinson’s scheme is launched when a broken-down mate in a pub reveals that the company has located a sunken German U-boat in the Black Sea that allegedly carried millions of dollars worth of gold bricks — a bribe paid by Stalin to forestall a Nazi invasion. It’s apparently still down there because Russia invaded Georgia and no one knows what’s what — which means the gold could be stolen right out from under his corporate oppressors. With help from an American wheeler-dealer (Scoot McNairy), Robinson gets a wad of front money from a mysterious gazillionaire and assembles a team of Brit and Russian cartographers, divers, and grunts. He also takes on — after taking pity on — a pink-cheeked homeless teenager called Tobin (Bobby Schofield) with a knocked-up girlfriend and no prospects. The Russians are spooked: So-called “virgins” are bad luck.
Director Kevin MacDonald flits back and forth between documentary and fiction, and he knows his way around survival sagas. (He made his mark with the scary climbing documentary Touching the Void.) Apart from the occasional wash of red or blue light, his style has no fanciness — you don’t even notice his style. It’s all straight-ahead, pumped-up, pressurized narrative, broken only by Robinson’s dreams of the family (Jodie Whittaker in a bikini and a little boy) he lost by always being out to sea. The international cast could hardly be more credible (Scoot McNairy is so versatile that at this point I only recognize him because of his silly name), and a plot twist I didn’t see coming kicks the picture into an even higher gear.
Black Sea does have its clunky bits. Reliably creepy Ben Mendelsohn plays the diver who’s dead-calm inside a pressure suit and feverishly paranoid outside it, and the script (by Dennis Kelly) makes him too much of a neon DISASTER sign from the outset. Maybe Law’s evolution from stable commander into Quint/Fred Dobbs mode is too abrupt, though there are certainly bad omens. (“This time, the shit is fighting back!”) Some late cornball stuff and a big plausibility issue in the final moments put a damper on things, but not enough to keep this from being a rattling good ride — and plunge. Walking out of the theater, you might well get the bends.