★★★ out of four stars
Too often, moviegoers must choose between character-driven drama and edge-of-your-seat action. “Black Sea” has both, with a gripping performance by Jude Law as their nexus.
Law plays Capt. Robinson, a veteran Scottish seaman who is brusquely laid off by his corporate employer, Agora. After hearing from an old buddy about a World War II submarine, rumored to be packed with tens of millions’ worth of plundered gold bars, lying sunken off the Georgian coast, he connects with a rich backer and assembles a rough-and-tumble crew of experienced hands.
Half are British guys he knows and trusts, and half are Russians he doesn’t, because they can run the 70-year-old Soviet sub that will be their transport to their destination 200 meters down.
After an artful half-hour setup, just long enough to make us care about Capt. “I gave up my family for this job” Robinson, director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) accelerates the pace and the drama. Robinson’s insistence that their prize be split evenly among the men sets off resentful rumblings of discord that build until they reach a boiling point. And another, and another.
Writer Dennis Kelly, whose previous work has consisted mostly of British TV comedies and the Tony-winning book for the Broadway musical “Matilda,” avoids the easy stereotypes and gaping implausibilities that usually plague this kind of film. Instead, his economic bits of dialogue speak volumes about the not-so-brotherly band of fortune hunters jammed together in a rusty metal behemoth that could become either their celebratory party craft or their grave.
Besides Law, who imbues Robinson with an understated authority that erupts into idealistic passion, the superb Aussie character actor Ben Mendelsohn stands out as always. As Fraser, the divemaster whose primary function is leading the ocean-floor expedition to retrieve the loot, he’s an antagonist who stirs it up immediately and becomes more unhinged by the hour.
Silent steampunk Morozov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) grows a bit more talkative with each disaster. Cherub-faced Tobin (Bobby Schofield) brings comic relief and pathos as the teen newbie whom Robinson recruits as a last-minute replacement. And shifty-eyed Scoot McNairy, born to play disingenuous dudes of all stripes, is perfectly cast as the tag-along suit, a representative of the trip’s mysterious financier.
The claustrophobic sub gives off its own ominous vibe, bathing the men in auras of red light like the hell-pod it turns out to be. Macdonald draws out some perilous circumstances, like three crewmen’s fateful foray out into the cold, murky depths, to almost unbearable lengths, while springing others on the audience with a boom that’s over in seconds.
“Black Sea” represents its genre well. This is good old-fashioned suspense that needs no gimmickry to sustain intrigue.