★ ★ ★
A cache of Nazi gold sits on the ocean floor, just waiting to be claimed, in Black Sea, a subaquatic hybrid of heist film and psychological thriller that’s scripted with deft efficiency by first-time feature writer Dennis Kelly, directed with claustrophobic zeal by Kevin Macdonald, and skippered by Jude Law at his desperate best. Fresh off his inspired performance as a charismatic safecracker in Richard Shepard’s underrated Dom Hemingway, Law serves as the glue here that holds a mismatched submarine crew together as they brave the ocean depths in search of untold riches, but he later becomes the force that threatens to tear them all apart when the true cost of the mission is made terrifyingly clear. Much to the movie’s benefit, he’s equally convincing on both fronts, and he has a killer supporting cast to help keep him afloat.
As the story opens, veteran submarine captain Robinson (Law) is being unceremoniously dismissed from his position at a deep-sea-salvage company called Agora, where he has worked for the past 11 years. During that time he gave everything to his job, to the point that his wife and son left him to start a new life. Now unemployed and staring down a bleak future, he heads out to a local bar to drown his sorrows alongside disgruntled former colleagues Kurston (Daniel Ryan) and Blackie (Konstantin Khabenskiy). When Kurston claims that he knows the location of a sunken U-boat containing eight million dollars in gold bars, and suggests gathering a crew for an expedition under an independent contractor, Robinson and Blackie leap at the opportunity. Unfortunately for them, Kurston perishes under mysterious circumstances, leaving Robinson with no other choice than to recruit Liam (Karl Davies), an uncertain young man with zero experience at sea.
The mission gets off to a shaky start when the crusty crew, half British and half Russian, arrive in Crimea to discover that their submarine seems less than seaworthy. Working together, this mismatched bunch are soon diving beneath the waves en route to the treasure. But getting there won’t be easy, because with the formidable Black Sea Fleet patrolling the surface up above, one wrong move could earn Robinson and his team a one-way ticket to a watery grave. Meanwhile, tensions in the submarine hit a breaking point when brilliant but unstable diver Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) lets his psychotic impulses get the best of him, leading to an engine-room scuffle that leaves the ship crippled on the ocean floor. Luckily for this bunch, it appears as though the U-boat they seek is just within range, and that it has a perfectly preserved drive shaft that could get their own vessel operational again. Mechanical problems prove to be the least of the crew’s worries, however, as factions begin to form and some grow convinced that Robinson, blinded by his lust for gold, is no longer fit to remain captain.
Credit where credit is due: By setting his heist film underwater, screenwriter Kelly ingeniously manages to inject anxiety into scenes that would be dull in your typical caper flick. Every echoing creek in Black Sea is pregnant with tension, and just when the audience begin to suspect that the biggest threat lurks outside in the murky depths, Kelly lets the growing conflict among the crew take center stage. With an excellent cast of supporting players that includes Scoot McNairy, Michael Smiley, and Sergey Veksler, director Macdonald constantly keeps us on the lookout for the next obstacle, with each one more serious than the last as the priceless gold stays just out of reach. Much like the submarine in the film, Black Sea would either sink or swim due to the talent of the crew, and fortunately for us, everyone is fully capable of holding his post.
The further the desperate Robinson unravels, the more difficult it becomes to determine whether he is steering his crew toward a life of complete freedom or certain death. Whichever comes first, one thing is for certain—you’ll be holding your breath right along with these treasure hunters as their hope for survival grows as black as the ocean depths.