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Black Sea

I realize that January and February are traditionally godawful months for moviegoers, but I had no idea just how bad the season would get this year. For the second weekend straight, the new releases have been an all-encompassing deluge of total shit. As an example, this weekend brings the release of Project Almanac, which is gamely trying for the prestigious title of the most annoying found footage movie ever made. We also have The Loft, a film with the rare distinction of earning a 0% Tomatometer as of this writing, coating theaters everywhere with a thin layer of slime.

Luckily, we still have the upshot of movies that technically opened in 2014 but didn’t get a wide release until awards season in 2015. Today’s example is Black Sea, a very well-received thriller in which Jude Law continues his trend of portraying gritty blue-collar Brits (see also: Dom Hemingway). It’s a very bold and savvy move, since Law’s “pretty boy” days are well behind him and this new persona should keep Law’s career viable as he continues aging gracefully. But I digress.

The cast also includes the proven talents of Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, and some of the finest talents from the UK and Russia that you’ve never heard of. The screenplay was handled by Dennis Kelly, here making his film debut after various television work in the UK and USA. As for director Kevin Macdonald, he’s still primarily known for The Last King of Scotland in 2006 and hasn’t made many films of note since (Anyone out there remember The Eagle or State of Play? Me neither.).

And how’s the film? Quite good. Very flawed, but quite good.

The premise begins with Robinson (Law), a Navy veteran who’s been working on submarines for 30 years. He’s spent eleven of those years on underwater salvage work until he gets laid off in the film’s opening moments. The company doesn’t need submarines — never mind submarine pilots — to do salvage work anymore, you see. This leaves Robinson in a tough bind, because it’s not like he can do anything else. Guy doesn’t even have a family to go back to: His wife (Chrissy, played by Jodie Whitaker) got fed up with his work schedule, so she took their son and left to marry a much wealthier man.

Let’s pause for a moment to recap. We’ve got a member of the working poor being trod upon by the wealthy, we’ve got an older man facing his own obsolescence in a merciless and constantly-changing world, and we’ve got a military veteran being cast aside by the country he served for. Remember these points. They’re absolutely crucial themes for each individual character and for the movie as a whole.

Anyway, Robinson meets up with some of his old work buddies (both of whom are similarly jobless), and one of them starts talking about a potential job. Apparently, there was a Russian submarine full of gold that went missing in the Black Sea when the Nazis invaded. The sub was discovered in 2008, just before the Russo-Georgian War happened. So now the boatload of gold is sitting on a seabed in contested waters and until the Powers That Be get the borders straight, no one can go in there and get it. Not legally, anyway.

So Robinson and his colleagues start making some calls and they’re put in touch with a man named Daniels (McNairy). In return for a percentage of the haul, Daniels’ wealthy employer agrees to provide enough funding for a rustbucket submarine and a crew of twelve. Because the sunken submarine is Russian, it’s decided that the crew should be half English and half Russian.

Among the crew members — aside from Robinson, obviously — are Tobin (Bobby Schofield), an 18-year-old expecting father who joins the crew at the last minute; Fraser (Mendelsohn), a genius diver who’s also a well-known psychopath; and Daniels, who comes along despite his claustrophobia and his total lack of knowledge about how to run a submarine.

In summary, we have a crew of twelve blue-collar grunts — all of whom are some combination of aging, inexperienced, greedy, paranoid, and/or mentally unstable — dealing with cultural barriers and excess testosterone as they work together in a rusty tube surrounded by dark watery death. Oh, and they all get an equal share of the loot, which means that their share gets bigger if someone gets killed off.

So it’s like The Treasure of the Chornoye Morye.

The basic premise of an underwater heist thriller is a solid one, and it’s superbly presented. Every frame is soaked in atmosphere, and the cast does an incredible job of selling the illusion that they’re seasoned deck hands. I’m deeply impressed that the filmmakers were able to do such a splendid job with lighting, sound, camerawork, etc. in such a confined space. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. We also get a few scenes out on the ocean floor, and they’re made to look nicely coherent without losing the illusion that we’re beneath the waves where no sunlight can reach. The action is compelling throughout, and the score is suitable if occasionally overbearing.

The big problem here is that the premise and its presentation are so much more interesting than the characters.

None of the characters develop very far past a few basic labels (Frazer is the loose cannon, Robinson is the leader, Tobin is the vulnerable one, etc.), but that’s not much of a problem at first because there’s so much going on. The characters all have reasons not to trust each other, and any one of them could start a fight or make a mistake at any time. This creates enough drama and suspense to power the film through most of its running time, but only up until the third act or so.

By the climax, there was simply no way to hide the fact that the characters were acting out of plot necessity rather than their own motivation. The movie even had to resort to a straight-up deus ex machina because there was no other way to get the necessary ending.

This brings me to another big problem with the film, and I’ll try to discuss it as spoiler-free as I can. Put simply, our crew was doomed to fail from the start. I mean, the crew is so inherently unstable and the submarine they’re using is such a pile of junk that of course the odds were against them. But more than that, it bears repeating that this is a movie about people who got crushed by the system. Good, hard-working men who consistently fail because more powerful forces are working against them. In that sense, and in many of its darker and angrier sensibilities, the film reminds me of Buried, or possibly Glengarry Glen Ross. Both films were completely unafraid of downer endings, eager to get the audience riled up and howling mad about how they (the audience and characters alike) are being treated as disposable pawns the moment we become too costly to bother with.

But this movie doesn’t have the guts to go that far. It chickens out with a last-minute deus ex machina, absolutely determined to deliver an ending that doesn’t fit the rest of the movie.

Still, even if Black Sea doesn’t quite nail the third act, it’s still a film worth watching. The presentation alone is worth the ticket price, and the premise is delivered impeccably. Also, even if the characters are thinly developed, every single actor turns in a performance worth watching.

If this came out at any other time of year, I’d recommend a rental. But with new releases the way they are now, what else are you going to watch?

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