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"BLACK SEA"
(2015) (Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramatic Thriller: A laid-off submarine captain assembles a rag tag crew in hopes of finding a long-sunken WWII submarine that's reportedly filled with millions of dollars of gold.
PLOT:
After serving in the navy commanding submarines, Captain Robinson (JUDE LAW) has worked for the past decade doing salvage work for the Agora corporation. Despite his service, they let him go, a development that doesn't sit well with him, especially since he realizes he lost his wife and 12-year-son due to his long hours working for them. When he learns from a similarly fired coworker of a potentially lucrative mission that could screw over his former company, he jumps at the chance.

It seems that back during WWII, Stalin offered to pay Hitler a handsome sum in gold bars if the latter agreed not to invade the former's country. But the German U-boat carrying that ended up at the bottom of the Black Sea and the rest is history. Agora has found the long-sunken U-boat, but can't get to it at the moment due to the current Russia-Georgia conflict. A rich investor, however, is willing to front the money if Robinson can put together a submarine crew, travel down to the U-boat, and steal the gold away, with their cut being a percentage of the recovered gold bars.

Robinson agrees and soon puts together a mixed crew of both British and Russian sailors. On the former side, there's Reynolds (MICHAEL SMILEY), his right-hand man; temperamental Australian diver Fraser (BEN MENDELSOHN); older diver Peters (DAVID THRELFALL); and a young homeless man, Tobin (BOBBY SCHOFIELD), who Robinson feels sorry for and brings onboard despite his lack of experience.

That doesn't sit well with all of the Russians, including Zaytsev(SERGEY PUSKEPALIS), the mechanic who must get an old Russian sub operational again, and Morozov (GRIGORIY DOBRYGIN) who casts a wary eye on these strangers. More willing to work together is Blackie (KONSTANTIN KHABENSKIY), who serves as the crew's translator, while Baba (SERGEY VEKSLER) works as their sonar operator. Joining them is Daniels (SCOTT McNAIRY) who works for the rich investor and isn't pleased about unexpectedly being forced to go along on the mission.

Needing to sneak under the Russian navy, locate the sub, remove the gold via an underwater operation, and then sail away, Robinson does his best to keep his lean crew focused on the job. But when things start going wrong, it appears the mission could unravel at any moment, possibly putting the lives of all involved at risk.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Whenever possible, I try to see movies knowing as little as possible about them. That way, I can -- hopefully -- be somewhat surprised by what's about to unfold before me in a darkened theater. Accordingly, when I first heard small tidbits about director Kevin Macdonald's submarine thriller "Black Sea" and that it had to do with a German U-boat, I wondered why anyone would tread through these sorts of cinematic waters again.

After all, there's been a plethora of such WWII set films ranging from "The Enemy Below" to "Run Silent, Run Deep," "U-571" and "Das Boot." And, indeed, the opening of this latest sub flick features archival (or made to look old) naval footage from WWII.

But then, much to my surprise, the story moved forward many decades to find our protagonist, Robinson (Jude Law, in increasingly tense and determined mode), being a former submarine captain who's now being canned from his more than decade long stint working for a company doing marine salvage work.

He's miffed, especially since he blames said job on the loss of his wife and pre-teen child who've since moved on and in with another man, so when he gets a chance to strike back, he jumps. Yet, rather than file a lawsuit or return and shoot up the place, he decides to do what he does best -- salvage work down there the fishies live.

He doesn't come up with the idea, mind you. Instead, he's given a heads up by a fellow, laid-off coworker and then more details by the assistant (SCOTT McNairy) to a rich investor who wants to hire him for a particular job. And much like Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) reacts to the notion of a big pay day in "Kelly's Heroes," he then assembles a ragtag crew to sneak in and steal a lot of gold bars from the Nazis.

Yet, rather than having to make their way through enemy lines to steal said heavy metal from a bank, Robinson will take his team down into the fathoms to raid a long-sunken U-boat at the bottom of the Black Sea. And with no true military enemy to contend with (beyond the never seen Russian navy up above), he must deal with his half-British, half-Russian crew turning on one another.

It's a pretty simple set-up provided by scripter Dennis Kelly, but Macdonald takes the premise and runs well with it. While it might have been a bit more fun to have set this during WWII (with the crew then having to contend with military forces on both sides of the war), what's present works, both as a straightforward dramatic thriller as well as a bit of socioeconomic messaging along with the related themes of what greed will do to men.

Working with cinematographer Christopher Ross and editor Justine Wright, Macdonald creates a suitable claustrophobic setting for his tale to unfold, and it efficiently does so over the film's 115-some minute runtime. The already uneasy alliance between the split crews starts to unravel even more once various setbacks, challenges and some treachery set in, and Robinson does his best to keep all of them in line, although he's anything but diplomatic in the approach.

Law is good playing that part, and the rest of the performances range from solid to strong (especially from Bobby Schofield as a young, homeless man brought onboard by the captain despite the kid having no previous nautical experience). Another part is good enough that I'll admit I didn't see one certain character twist coming, even if it plays out fairly similarly to what occurred in a seminal sci-fi tale from 1986.

While it might not be quite as good as the best submarine movie thrillers, "Black Sea" is more than good enough for what it's trying to do and be. And for that, it rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed January 9, 2015 / Posted January 30, 2015


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