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Black Sea - Movie Review

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Black Sea - Movie Review

3 stars

With his slow-burn underwater thriller Black Sea, director Kevin Macdonald continues to explore his fascination with the human psyche under duress. Only this time, rather than the vast expanses of the Peruvian Andes in Touching the Void, or the African nation of Uganda in The Last King of Scotland, Macdonald goes to the bottom of the sea within the suffocating confines of a Soviet-era submarine - a pressure cooker of sorts, where emotional and psychological reactions to stress become amplified.

Set in modern day with the political strife of the Crimean peninsula roiling above and the lure of millions in Nazi gold below, Black Sea – with its ageless themes and enduring moral dilemmas – would feel right at home in the days of Hollywood’s golden-era classics. Films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Das Boot, and The Wages of Fear were better representatives of what Macdonald is trying to do here, but his Black Sea manages enough stress, genuine intrigue, and the often sought after but rarely achieved act of creating true audience unease.

The film’s discomfort comes from the dilemma in which a submarine crew finds itself when a dangerous assignment to salvage millions of dollars in lost Nazi gold goes awry. The mission, led by long-time salvage submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) who finds himself recently unemployed after 11 years, is a bit of a chase for fairies as the gold is only legend told over pints of England’s best.  But when a funding offer is facilitated by go-between Daniels (Scoot McNairy), Robinson jumps at the chance to prove the tale true.

The film doesn’t spend too much time setting up the voyage as we see Robinson quickly cobble together a ragtag bunch of half-British half-Russian seamen who will take us along on the journey to the ocean’s floor to look for the millions in lost treasure. Russians are needed to not only man the rusting Soviet-class diesel, but to increase tensions by striking up old Cold War divisions amongst the crew.

The film’s premise is not a particularly original one – never quite reaching the heights of the best in either the heist or submarine genre, but Macdonald never bogs his tale down with an overabundance of long-winded diatribes about the submarine’s inner-workings or the over-used long periods of running silent to avoid an enemy. In fact, there is no enemy hidden in the sea’s blackness. The real danger comes from within the sub’s rusty, creaking hull – desperate men who’ve been tossed on the scrap heap of society and left to fend for themselves to claw something from life. The plot moves briskly and with steadfast purpose, its ageless themes of greed, desperation, and growing madness never overstaying their welcome.

However, Macdonald does all too frequently beat us over the head with heavy-handed flashbacks of Robinson’s backstory. Though it would be a major misstep to not give the audience a much-needed breather, Macdonald too often cuts to the same golden-hued scene of his captain running on the beach, beautiful wife (Jodie Whittaker) and child in hand. Yes, we understand Robinson’s personal torment having lost his family to his job, but a more subtle hand is needed here.

There’s a nice, but somewhat predictable, twist in store for this embattled ship of fools that requires all these gritty, grimy sailors to reach a truce and trust one another. Like the films from which Macdonald takes his inspiration, Black Sea is first and foremost a well-crafted study of human nature. But he thankfully draws equal amounts of tension from the haunting scenes that take place outside the vessel. Black Sea is a good film with some memorable turns by a worthy cast all rowing in unison, but it will unfortunately struggle to find a place among the great submarine films or even the best heist thrillers.

Black Sea - Movie Review

MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some graphic images and violence.
115 mins
: Kevin Macdonald
Writer: Dennis Kelly
Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn
: Adventure | Thriller
Black Sea.
Memorable Movie Quote: "I lost my family to this job"
Focus Features
Official Site:
Release Date:
January 23, 2015
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
No details available
Synopsis:Two-time Academy Award nominee Jude Law captains the cast of Black Sea, the suspenseful adventure thriller directed by Academy Award winner Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, The Last King of Scotland).

Black Sea centers on a rogue submarine captain (Jude Law) who, after being laid off from a salvage company, pulls together a misfit crew to go after a sunken treasure rumored to be lost in the depths of the Black Sea. As greed and desperation take control on board their claustrophobic vessel, the increasing uncertainty of the mission causes the men to turn on each other to fight for their own survival.

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