Black Sea (2014)

It’s weird. I like being on the ocean (to a certain degree), but the idea of being stranded at sea or forced to exist, in some capacity, under it…scares the shit outta me. Not only does my overactive imagination conjure up images of huge, carnivorous beasts lurking in the dark freezing depths, but there’s also the the cold hard fact that it’s the least human-friendly environment on our planet. We are simply not made to exist there. But when it comes to cinematic entertainment, I sure do love me a good submarine movie! Among some of my most rewatchable flicks are movies like the classic ‘Das Boot’ (1981), ‘The Abyss’ (1989), ‘Crimson Tide’ (1995), ‘U-571’ (2000) and ‘Below’ (2002). And now I can add ‘Black Sea’ to that list. It’s always a shame when a flick emerges from nowhere, brimming with effort and ambition, and is unceremoniously cast aside, seemingly within moments of it’s release. That seems to be exactly the case with this one. For a low budget (they apparently ran out of money too, leaving them having having to use key location footage that was shot almost by accident), the effort is definitely there on-screen and I thought they ended up pulling off an effective, tension-laced undersea thriller. Director Kevin MacDonald (‘The Last King of Scotland’) certainly came into this one with solid ambitions and undeniably made the most of what he had, which again, apparently wasn’t much.
The story opens with the ‘firing’ of a Scottish maritime salvage operator named ‘Robinson’ (Jude Law). It seems that ‘Robinsons’ life has been steadily turning to shit, as his ex-wife doesn’t want anything more to do with him and he’s suffering from estrangement from his young son. One day soon after his ‘termination’, while drowning his sorrows in a bar with a couple of equally down-on-their-luck companions from the Maritime Salvage world, a story regarding a missing U-Boat from WW2, it’s cargo hold packed with Russian gold, emerges…and ambitious plans are drawn up. Through a contact known to one of the men, ‘Robinson’ is put in touch with an uptight and shady American ‘middle man’ named ‘Daniels’ (Scoot McNairy), who leads them to a lucrative money source with an eye for Russian gold. From there, ‘Robinson’ oversees the assembly of a mercenary crew of hard-done-by British and Russian sailors and industrial workers, who all stand to walk away with an equal share of the plunder. They just have to get their ancient, Cold War-era Russian submarine to the believed location of the sunken Nazi vessel without the Russian Navy getting wise to their actions. As the treacherous journey unfolds, distrust and paranoia grip key members of the crew, leading to a volatile, potentially deadly situation; compounded by a dangerous accident far below the waves that strands the sub on the bottom. Let the tension mount!
Now, I’m the first to admit that there’s only so much that can be told involving submarines and their crews and, in all likelihood, we’ve seen pretty much all there is concerning original content for that cinematic scenario. It’s clear to me that director MacDonald had done his research of past films of this ilk and I caught many instances where story elements could be clearly traced back to their inspirations. The dissent among the men screamed ‘Crimson Tide’. The ‘trapped on the bottom’ scenario (and the specific dry suit design) harken’d back to ‘The Abyss’. A sequence where a trio of submariners must brave the depths outside their stricken boat was a dead-ringer for a similar scene in ‘Below’. In fact, I would say the biggest ‘submarine movie’ influence would be ‘The Abyss’. MANY shot compositions, lighting schemes and sound design elements reminded me of that fantastic film ( Director’s Cut, definitely NOT the Theatrical version), and that’s not a bad standard to aim for. Did MacDonald reach THAT level of realistic greatness here? Not really. But, in my opinion, he crafted a tight film that had me intrigued from beginning to end. I don’t know how limited the budget was, but this film looks REALLY good. If you’ve seen a ‘submarine movie’ before, you’re familiar with the tropes of the genre. The harsh, colored lighting for select sections of the sub. The tense moments involving someone on the sonar console. Tense, sweaty men working with quiet focus on solving a problem that threatens to kill them. The threat of mutiny and violence in the metallic confines of a steel can. A terrifying, uncontrolled fall into the depths. A fractured hull and the loud blast of rushing water. All of these familiar elements play out here, but they’re handled with competence and vision. I particularly liked the exterior shots of the sub in motion, as the murky-but-wide cinematography gave an effective sense of scale. Whatever pennies they had scraped together, a good chunk of them went to perfecting these select underwater sequences…or at least rendering them handsome enough to not distract from the human drama.
The acting is mostly pretty solid, with Jude Law adopting an ‘at times’ questionable Scottish accent, but injecting enough ‘gravity’ into his character to keep the audience focused on his performance, not his accent. ‘Scoot McNairy’ starts off as something of an enigma, but eventually reveals himself to be the duplicitous asshole I suspected him to be from the beginning. His ‘Burke-from-‘Aliens’ vibe shone right through and McNairy handled the conniving, rodent-like ‘asshole’ aspect like a champ. I wanted to hold his head underwater several times…so that tells me he succeeded. Several other faces emerge as familiar staples in British cinema and they step up with what they have, to keep the story flowing.
I found this movie to move along at a commendable speed and the pacing never really felt clunky or padded. There’s a healthy amount of set-up and establishing of motivation…then we’re right into it.
All in all, I enjoyed this movie. I found myself caught up in the story and recognized the moments when I was unconsciously tensed up during the claustrophobic happenings on-screen. As with what happened with David Twohy’s supernatural submarine thriller ‘Below’ (where it was given a modestly sexy budget and solid cast, with eyes on a wide theatrical release, only to be shamefully yanked and thrown out into the world as a ‘Direct to DVD’ release), I’m somewhat baffled by how this one was treated. Had it been given a good marketing campaign and a few more dollars for some of the effects, I think it certainly would’ve taken at least it’s budget back (whatever that was) with a modest theatrical run. As it stands, it only pulled in something pathetic like 1 and a half million dollars. Guaranteed this film had more than that in the Production Budget. So sad. But since it didn’t make any cash, it should, at least, be seen and hopefully appreciated. It deserves that much. If you like ‘submarine movies’, tense adult-themed adventures or character-oriented drama in the guise of a disaster-oriented thriller, then ‘Black Sea’ may be your ‘cup o tea’. It’s not perfect…but it is a solid suspense thriller that kept me intrigued and moderately excited through the entire run-time. It’s worth a look.

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