Fun enough, but ultimately bogged down by a frustratingly obvious screenplay.
BY RYAN MILOWICKI
One of the more oddly-specific genres in film history is the submarine thriller. Almost always playing on the themes of claustrophobia, trust, and the relentless pursuit of Germans, Soviets, or something belonging to them, it’s very hard to follow in the footsteps of Das Boot or The Hunt for Red October and not tread familiar ground. While Black Sea is often quite enjoyable to watch, it fails to break any new ground in the subgenre, all the while being bogged down by a laborious and obvious screenplay.
The film follows a ragtag team (half British, half Russian) of submariners and divers who have frustratingly seen their jobs become superfluous in the 21st century. When they hear about a Nazi U-boat filled with gold and sunk at the bottom of the Black Sea, they hatch a plan to covertly go down to the depths and claim the gold before either the Russian government or their greedy ex-employers recover it. Led by the crusty Captain Robinson (Jude Law in a thick Aberdeen accent), tensions between the Brits and the Russians erupt underwater over the tantalizing “equal shares for every man” policy implemented at the beginning of the voyage. Each man begins to realize that their respective share will increase if there are fewer people with whom to split the treasure.
Despite some familiarity, it’s a solid premise for a thriller, and there is plenty to like about the film. For starters, the actual setpiece of the submarine is equal parts constricting and expansive, and is shot quite eerily with a reddish tint that only slightly prevents entombing darkness. And when things inevitably go haywire around the second act, there’s something undeniably entertaining about watching underwater explosions and Jude Law’s trademark bug-eyed scowl. The mix of desperation and technical skill embodied by Law results in a very solid performance, and he does his best to keep the stakes high and unpredictable.
But the screenplay is an utter mess, straining the pacing and creating more confusion than a movie this inherently simple should have. I was expecting Black Sea to devolve into a mile-a-minute fight for survival at the first sign of trouble, but instead large swaths of time elapse between climactic incidents. This made me feel every one of its 115 minutes, and the dialogue contained within these lulls in the action did little to advance the plot. The more the film tries to explains its characters’ motivations, the less sense they make. The impulses with which some of the characters act are head-scratchingly improbable, and the way the screenplay tries to justify the rationale as general psychosis is a bit of a cop-out.
The dialogue also moves at a mile-a-minute at times, making the film unintelligible at times with the thick accents each actor sports. As a result, I was often forced to pay a great deal more close attention than I would ideally like to in a thriller of this nature. This turned into a bizarre duality of sorts, as certain facets of the screenplay were dizzying in their slap-you-over-the-head obviousness (particularly in the first act). Seeing Law’s character watch his son from afar in an early scene isn’t enough to explain his character, he needs to say “my boy” at least five times in the ensuing pub conversation. Seeing the submarine’s depth gauges point to extreme readings isn’t deemed enough diagetic information to signify our heroes’ location; we need a particularly buffoonish character to hold his head and yell “Ow, my ears!” Further examples of this abound throughout the film, and do a disservice to the audience by not allowing us to fill in the extraordinarily easy blanks.
Now don’t get me wrong, there is a lot more here than we’ve come to expect from January release (I’m looking at you, Wedding Ringer and Mortdecai), and I would describe my overall experience as a fun one. But there’s two ways in which I would have thoroughly enjoyed Black Sea: either a taut and tense thriller which kept me spellbound throughout and continually raised the stakes, or a B-movie camp fest so over-the-top in its craziness that I couldn’t help loving it. Unfortunately, Black Sea is neither of those, resulting in a middling end product that shows just enough flashes of excitement to leave me wanting for so much more. The trailer had me expecting an off-the-rails combination of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, a promise that the film ultimately couldn’t keep. There’s always a saddening level of disappointment when high hopes aren’t met, but if you lower your expectations enough before walking into the theater, Black Sea can be a pleasant way to spend two hours in the bleak midwinter.
RYAN’s RATING: 2 Stars out of 4