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Friday, January 30, 2015

Black Sea Review: Well-Apportioned Submarine Thriller

Bolstered by strong performances, the submarine thriller Black Sea is a terrific underwater adventure.

Review by Matt Cummings

What happens when a movie is so good but so poorly-placed in the schedule that the best it can do is find itself in the Month of Forgotten Movies? That's the plight behind Black Sea, a memorable submarine thriller with everything going for it except for a proper release date.

When the former submarine driver Robinson (Jude Law) loses his job at the company, he signs on with a shadowy investor and to liberate a German U-boat loaded with 4 tons of WWII-era gold. Seeking redemption and a final shot at respectability, Robinson hires a group of tough-minded men for his crew, including the psychotic Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) and the newbie Tobin (Bobby Schofield). Although Robinson has promised his men an equal cut of the profits, greed and murder are never far behind, and soon the crew begins to crack, crippling the mission and putting their very lives at risk. Presented with a dark secret and facing a grim situation, Robinson and his men himself find themselves in a tightening noose of deadly rivalries, corporate intrigue, and a broken ship that could soon become their tomb.

Keeping away from cliched underwater adventure lines, it's safe to say that Black Sea took everyone at our screening by surprise. The reasons: terrific performances as well as the broad and bold chances that Writer Dennis Kelly takes in its script. No one is a protected asset here, employing a distinctly Battlestar Galactica feel to things. Kelly uses his chess pieces well, employing some to murder with purpose and others to feel the wrath of their violence. And while he doesn't spend much time to tell each of their stories, they do have their endearing moments, either in short segments of levity or in their utterance of well-written lines.

Law embodies the figure of a man pushed to the edge of desperation, with his loyal men soon fighting each other for their stolen contraband. Their extreme tunnel vision is something that Robinson cannot control, and Director Kevin Macdonald uses this surface tension to boil that pot of water until the top pops off. What results isn't so much violence for the sake of it, but a gripping lesson on what greed can do to people. It's a tragic course that Robinson has plotted, and just when you think that the story is about to take on a Hollywood ending, Kelly slams that door shut.

But this is Jude Law's ship to command, and as so he absolutely shines. This is Robinson's chance to escape the drudgery of a failed life, encouraging - and then later forcing - his men to do his will. When that authority begins to erode among certain members of the crew, you can see his clenched fists and steely eyes become a seemingly permanent fixture. It's a stirring contrast to the fatherly Robinson which Macdonald also shows us in several dream sequences, a broken man whose one chance at redemption exceeds that of a simple robber. By the time we get to the end, it seems like the idealic memories Robinson which have permeated Black Sea might even have been imagined.

This is where Schofield gets a chance to become the older son Robinson will never have. His efforts to put Tobin on a better course result in some of the film's best scenes, as Law gets a chance to dig deep into his character's backstory. Growing beyond the single-minded hothead, Robinson's ultimate sacrifice becomes the anvil on which this story is forged. McNarry turns in a Paul Reiser-like performance from Aliens as the corporate leech with a dark secret. His is the gunpowder on which the entire operation is set to explode, with Mendelsohn the torch. It's funny to note that this troupe is not filled with heavy Hollywood hitters, and yet it all works out. Everyone knows their places and everyone seemingly takes their cues from Law and Macdonald like Robinson was really there.

As I mentioned, there is a huge plot twist here that really ups the tension and takes the story into undefined territory, but you'll have to see it to experience the same reaction. For me it was perfect timing, elevating the story at precisely the right time and giving our characters a reason to re-join the ranks, only to see it destroyed once again over greed. That's the kind of storytelling that Kelly and Macdonald take, and the results are worth every minute. Even the score by Composer Ilan Eshkeri pulses to a moody Hans Zimmer/Dark Knight beat, extending the darker themes to all points of this film.

Black Sea is quite likely the most surprising film of January, and yet it's too bad that so few people will see it. With so many compelling choices already in 2015, and with virtally no marketing behind it, Black Sea's excellence might be forced to find its success in the home market, which is a shame considering its engrossing plot and solid accoutrements. No matter how you see it, add this one to your list.

Black Sea is rated R for language throughout, some graphic images and violence and has a runtime of 115 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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