Submarine movies aren’t quite a subgenre, but they do have a long history. The idea that a group of humans will go beneath the surface of the sea in a metal tube packed with complex technology and weapons of mass destruction is naturally suspenseful.
“Das Boot,” the World War II-set German film from 1981, is the greatest, most intense sub movie ever. Most sub movies are war- or national-security related, including such well-regarded examples as “The Hunt for the Red October” and “Crimson Tide.”
“Black Sea,” a new undersea drama starring Jude Law, surfaces in theaters this weekend. Scottish director Kevin Macdonald, an Oscar winner for his documentary “One Day in September,” helms the film’s nearly two hours of crisis and chaos.
Despite Law’s and his crew’s progression from one tight spot to the next, “Black Sea” doesn’t threaten the preeminence of “Das Boot.” Law’s unwavering commitment to his role as an angry man out for revenge keeps the movie afloat to the extent it does float.
Law plays a Scotsman with 30 years of submarine experience, first in the British Royal Navy and later in the marine salvage industry. The story opens with him being sacked. The commercial salvage business has changed, a desk-bound young man tells the visibly enraged Law. It doesn’t need submarines anymore.
The principal characters of “Black Sea” are working-class men made obsolete by changing economic and technological times. Like Law, they’re lost and rudderless out of the water.
The sacking of Law and his peers sparks the main “Black Sea” event. Law launches a rogue mission to recover lost treasure, a hoard of Nazi gold that’s been hidden beneath the Black Sea since World War II.
Above and below the surface in “Black Sea,” first-time screen writer Dennis Kelly, a Tony-winning playwright, sets stages for his characters to commiserate on. At first it’s a local working-class bar. Later it’s the interior of an old Soviet sub pulled from retirement for Law’s mission.
In both of the latter locations, the raw “Black Sea” script and characters need more development. The story simply knocks Law and his crew of British and Russian sailors through increasingly implausible, mishap-plagued episodes.
Law’s captain assembles a crew that’s half Russian because his vessel is of Russian origin. The Brits and Russians quickly start feuding, dampening the already hazardous mission’s chance for success.
Law also hires an expert British diver (Ben Mendelsohn) who, as Law knows, is a psychotic killer. Murdering one’s crewmates, no matter what nationalities are involved, won’t foster good working relationships.
As if having a knife-wielding killer aboard isn’t enough trouble, a weaselly American goes along for the ride. To the point of annoyance, Scoot McNairy whines and manipulates his way through his role as the onboard representative for the voyage’s mysterious financier.
Fatalities in “Black Sea” keep rising. Not so suspense and drama. Despite leading man Law’s passionate, commendable performance, his vessel continuously springs new leaks. Its voyage to the bottom of the sea is a foregone conclusion.