Black Sea is the perfect counterexample to when a cranky, older relative complains, “They don’t make movies like they used to anymore.” Profanity notwithstanding, director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly follow the heist/adventure that was all the rage in the mid-twentieth century: they take a group of hardened, competent men, played with varied personalities by recognizable character actors, and give them one taxing hardship after another. Kelly’s script heightens the economy and tension by confining the action to one setting: a decrepit Soviet submarine. “Old-fashioned” is a more generous way to say “familiar,” so of course there are parts of Black Sea that are laughably predictable. But since Macdonald and his cast are so effective, they elevate the material (pun intended) until it is ruthlessly involving.
The close quarters for the submarine add tension without much effort, so Kelly is in a rush to put his ragtag group of misfits inside it. The leader is Robertson (Jude Law), a former member of the British Navy who gets fired from a salvage company. Seething and humiliated, a dangerous opportunity piques his interest: it seems that during World War 2, the Nazis had a U-Boat bound for the Soviet Union that was filled with gold (this was before Germany invaded Russia). Thanks to endless red-tape, the U-Boat still sits on the seafloor, ripe for the taking. A shadowy businessman bankrolls Robertson’s operation, and soon he’s recruiting blue-collar submarine workers, both from England and Russia. Once they’re below sea level, the businessman’s callow representative Daniels (Scoot McNairy) correctly points out the problem of an equal share of gold: the men might kill each other so that theirs might grow.
Kelly finds suspense through a mix of practicalities and character development. The language barrier creates a simmering sense of distrust, so it’s up to Robertson and his Russian friend Blackie (Konstantin Khabenskiy) to placate their respective sides. An English diver named Frazer (Ben Mendelsohn) is hot-headed and paranoid, and his needling of the Russians is what leads to the voyage’s first calamity. But the mission is more important than a betrayal among the crew, so Macdonald find drama simply by moving the plot forward while no character forgets any slight, no matter how minor.
Everyone on the crew dislikes each other, with varying degrees of hostility, yet they have a greater respect for skill. There is a workmanlike, effective moment where everyone works together to help the sonar guy figure out their precise location (the sound design, full of wails and pregnant silences, is terrific). Then there’s a lengthy dive sequence, one defined by impenetrable water and problem solving, and Macdonald cuts to faces of abject fear from the English and Russians alike. Robertson rounds out his crew with an 18 year old kid (Bobby Schofield), a simple but effective choice: with a neophyte on board, the salty middle-aged crewmembers must explain what they’re doing to both him and the audience. It’s an easy screenwriting trick, yet Macdonald’s brisk pacing overshadows Kelly’s embrace of clichés.
No performance in Black Sea is a revelation precisely because the tight direction hinders any chance of overacting. Through irregular use of subtitles, the Russian actors are mainly there for gallows humor and the occasional menacing close-up. Of the English-speaking actors, Mendelsohn stands out because, well, he’s made a career out roles as an unpredictable hothead. McNairy’s character arc is ruthless, because he’s both the voice of reason and the crew’s biggest coward. The biggest surprise, to my delight, is from Jude Law. Now that he’s filled out his frame and lost some hair, Law eschews the pretty boy roles from his early career. His performance is the sort of thing we might expect from Bob Hoskins at his peak: smart and ferocious, with a chip on his shoulder that inspires madness. Macdonald and Kelly do Law a disservice with superfluous flashbacks to his life as a family man; Law’s contorted face can do all the work for them.
Unlike many other submarine films, which include underwater warfare, Black Sea focuses on the crew and physical obstacles. It’s kind of refreshing, actually, to find a relentless thriller in which not a single shot is fired. By the time things go terribly wrong, as they must, Macdonald recalls Touching the Void, his terrific documentary about mountain climbers who face hardships that are so tense they’re nearly nauseating. Men in harrowing conditions seem to fascinate Macdonald; the difference with Black Sea, however, is that he does not dwell on their suffering. Perhaps that would be too depressing, as several men drown and their desperate final breaths would veer the film from adventure to horror. Black Sea does not exactly lose its nerve in its final moments. Instead, Macdonald and Kelly remember that older movies offer some reprieve, however meager, and so this one must follow their example.