As with the tight quarters in prisons, POW camps and jury rooms, a submarine jammed with angry desperate men is surefire fuel for movie tension. “Black Sea,” the new film from Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”), wrings every imaginable gripping moment out of a stark melodrama about a life-or-death salvage mission in the unforgiving depths of a deadly sea.
Macdonald and playwright/screenwriter Dennis Kelly throw at a British-Russian submarine crew headed by Jude Law enough peril and mistrust to evoke comparisons to stories of madness above ground (“The Treasure of Sierra Madre”), below the water (“Das Boot”) and on the sea (“Moby Dick”).
While it may not reach the heights (or depths?) of those great tales, “Black Sea” doesn’t shame itself with such comparisons either. With a commander whose greed may be overwhelming his sense of responsibility, deep divisions in an international crew of roughnecks and claustrophobic quarters within a vintage Russian diesel sub, the movie grips you from the moment the vessel slips beneath the Georgian sea.
Macdonald nicely orchestrates a series of discoveries, betrayals, in-fighting and reversals of expectations Kelly cleverly detonates along the sub’s path to gold and glory. And the mix of personalties among the crew could not be more combustible.
Cinematographer Christopher Ross shoots the occasional outdoors scene in brooding blacks, grays and browns that fairly glisten. But indoors, which is to say in the cramped sweaty bowels of the ancient sub, garish red, blues, greens and yellows give nightmarish tones to the fight for survival.
Law plays a bitter, newly discharged submarine captain, who upon hearing a tale of a German U-boat full of World War II-era gold believed sunk in the Black Sea, sees an opportunity to redeem his life. He has lost his beloved wife and son to his dedication to a job that has thrown him over after some 30 years.
He goes by the name of Robinson, deliberately evoking the adventures of Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson. Whatever images you may still hold for Law as an English toff cast aside for his Robinson is a prideful, determined, obsessive Scot who’s as tough as a mission requires.
A funding offer from a mysterious investor comes with a go-between in Daniel (Scoot McNairy), who must tag along with the crew of misfits, presumably to watch over his boss’ investment.
The joint British-Russian crew deeply distrusts one another and, worse, only one Russian speaks English. Ben Mendelsohn plays a “psychopath” whose diving skills are absolutely required otherwise his violent streak would not be tolerated.
A teen greenhorn in Bobby Schofield comes along to bond with the divorced captain. Veteran actors David Threlfall and Michael Smiley make underwritten roles stand out.
The Russian contingent include Konstantin Khabensky as the middleman between the two nations and Sergey Veksler as the reliable sonar operator plus Grigory Dobrygin, Sergey Kolesnikov Konstantin Khabenskiy and Sergey Puskepalis.
Tensions are evident between the two camps from the outset as everyone, looking ahead far too optimistically, has started to divide the loot even before it has been determined that it actually exists — or that anyone will survive to spend it.
Crisis follows crisis, nearly all of which derive not from the rusty bucket of bolds they ride in beneath patrolling Russian battleships but the crew’s own volatile nature. If they all got along, there’d be no story. Fortunately, they’re at each other’s throats constantly with Robinson acting as referee.
The Brits don’t like the fact everyone has been promised an even share. The Russkies, they imagine, would settle for a flat rate. Then there is this deadly calculus: Less crew members mean a bigger payout to the survivors.
One crisis knocks out the captain for a while during which dreams about his divorced wife (Jodi Whittaker) and son feed the backstory plus give purpose the driving force in his gold-lust. While he is the movie’s hero, you can’t always be sure his judgment is sound when he continues to push, Ahab-like, for gold that will redeem his life.
Another conflict brewing beneath the sea comes not between the crew but rather these working-class stiffs and the state/corporate entities that seemingly rule their fate. This may be a tad forced but the grievances by Robinson and his none-too-happy family toward callous bosses, admirals and the like bring this submarine tale into the modern day world of haves and have-nots.
The crew starts to see the theft of this Nazi gold as a payback for their grievances just as Robinson still smolders at being fired by his salvage company without so much as a pat on the back.
Putting camera and sound design to terrific use, Macdonald plays all these tensions and crises out amid cramped quarters, clanging pipes, unreliable gauges and a whirling drive shaft. A diving and salvage sequence and later a foolhardy escape through an impossibly narrow underwater canyon toward the Turkish shoreline are pure white-knuckle moments.
“Black Sea” is an adept, muscular entertainment that never for one moment lacks for dramatic clout.
Opens: January 23, 2015 (Focus Features)
Production companies: Focus Features and Film4 present a Cowboy Films production
Cast: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Bobby Schofield, Grigory Dobrygin, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Smiley, Sergey Kolesnikov, Sergey Puskepalis
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenwriter: Dennis Kelly
Producers: Kevin Macdonald, Charles Steel
Executive producers: Jim Cochrane, Merve Harzadin, Tessa Ross Director of photography: Christopher Ross
Production designer: Nick Palmer
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Costume designer: Natalie Ward
Editor: Justine Wright
R rating, 115 minutes