Saturday, January 24, 2015

Black Sea

A close call for me on Kevin Macdonald’s “Black Sea,” about Robinson (Jude Law), a submarine captain fired after eleven years by Agora, a faceless maritime salvage firm that comes in for much of the film’s impotent critique of corporate greed. (I want five bucks from the first crossword constructor who replaces the ancient Greek marketplace with this reference in a clue.)

Throwing down drinks with buddies at a bar, he hears the story of a German U-boat, recently located under the Black Sea, reportedly carrying $80 million in gold ingots – an appeasement payment from Stalin to Hitler. Ownership of the boat and its cargo is tied up in international legal and diplomatic chains, so Robinson and some colleagues convince a financier to bankroll a submarine expedition to sneak in undetected and steal the proverbial bacon. He puts together a ragtag crew – half Brits, half Russkies – and sets out in a rusty sub that looks less than seaworthy.

Macdonald does a good job of establishing the cramped and claustrophobic quarters of this fragile refuge from the enveloping grip of cold, wet death. Most of the characters are distinctly drawn, and some of the adventure scenes are exciting and nervous-making. There’s also a welcome dose of interpersonal humor, and the incomparable lure of all that gleaming gold. (I was reminded of a better movie about gold, 1992’s “Trespass,” with Bill Paxton, Ice Cube, Ice T and William Sadler.) But a crewman Robinson describes early on as “a bit psycho, but very good” turns out to be completely psycho; no movie hero worth his salt would allow him on board. And the money man the financier insists tag along (overacted by Scoot McNairy) is a whiny and wearying presence. The men’s arguments become repetitive and peter out unconvincingly; in reality, more fur would fly.

“Black Sea” starts out as a tight, involving study of a man and his crew, but several incongruous acts of violence and the random revelation of the true nature of the mission prove it to be a different and lesser kind of movie at heart. A marginal thumbs down.

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