I know what you’re thinking, ‘Not another submarine-set heist movie!’ Oh. Wait. Nope. That’s actually a genre mash-up I’ve never heard of before.
Black Sea is one part “one last job” crime thriller, one part cabin fever drama, one part Moby Dick. But instead of a big white whale, this Ahab is obsessed with a treasure trove of Nazi gold! With all these elements combined, Black Sea might seem bonkers. But actually this is a sleek thriller that gets so tense it’s literally nauseating. In a good way!
Forget the posh and pretty Jude Law. The English actor has gone burly and deeply blue-collared to play Black Sea’s decommissioned submarine captain with a grudge. In need of a big score after being abruptly canned from a salvaging company, this thick-necked bruiser pulls together a crew of down-and-out British and Russian sailors to plunge deep into the titular sea in hopes of stealing millions in Nazi gold from a long-sunken sub in contested territory near Georgia (the country, not the state). If they are discovered by Georgian or Russian forces, they could be killed. If their battered black market sub buckles under the pressure, they could be killed. But these are just the beginnings of the crew’s troubles, as greed and culture clashes grow explosive within a glorified tin can, leagues under the sea.
Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, How I Live Now) has brought together an impeccable ensemble made of men’s men, who look gnarled and hardened by lives spent in the brutal isolation of submarining. Law leads the cast as a believably roughneck Robinson. His teeth-locked sneer, hunched shoulders and cold eye sell him as a leader of men. But as the promise of the gold gets more real, Robinson’s inner demons overtake his responsibility to the safety of his crew. Law handles this transition with a surgeon’s precision, transforming from the guy we root for to the guy we fear. And it’s utterly exhilarating.
The whole ensemble clicks, threading together an ‘us (Brits) versus them (Ruskies)’ vibe that’s rich and riveting. But the standouts are Grigoriy Dobrygin and Ben Mendelsohn. The former portrays a silent but savvy Russian crewmate with the kind of lumber-sexual good looks that would make him the hottest bartender in Brooklyn. The latter plays an impulsive diver who is described from the jump as a “psycho.” (Duh. He’s played by Ben Mendelsohn.) As the plot stacks up its twists and turns, the crew crumbles, and these two very different men become opposing forces, symbols of the angel and devil on Robinson’s shoulder. One demands the safety of the crew above all else, even the riches they’ve risked their lives for. The other demands gold. And with an equal share promised to each survivor, why keep around more survivors than absolutely necessary?
The script by Dennis Kelly keeps lean on nautical lingo so you’ll never be lost as to what stakes are being faced. But while the gold heist is Black Sea’s catalyst, it’s the warring crew that keeps the tensions high throughout. As teased up top, I literally got nauseas with anxiety watching the crew tear at each other as the sea threatens to tear apart their sub. That was a first, and a welcome one because it speaks to how damn intense this thriller is.
Playing with conflicts of nationality, greed, obsession, fear, and ultimately redemption, it’s a stomach-churning ride with a bold finish. I’ll confess one third-act twist was one twist too many for me, veering this submarine journey into “a bridge too far” terrain. Nonetheless, I had a blast. Between this and Dom Hemingway, Jude Law has come into a strange new stage of his career, made up of blue-collared brawlers who are equal parts charismatic and dangerous. And Law’s so damn good at it I never want him to be pretty again.