A bitter sense of class warfare, and a clear understanding of the toxic resentments such conflicts can foster, underlies the action and interpersonal drama of Black Sea, which pits a roguish submarine crew, half English and half Russian, against one another. As the film opens, Captain Robinson (Jude Law) is getting the boot from his longtime corporate employer, a sudden abandonment that leads him to take on an off-the-books mission, backed by a mysterious private funder (Tobias Menzies), to retrieve a sunken boatload of gold lost in the final days of WWII. The crew he assembles is made up of ex-cons, former military personnel, and other lifetime slaves to the ebb and flow of low-wage blue-collar labor, men whose interactions with major companies and the wealthy in general have rendered them caustic and mean. As much as the film is primarily a genre workout for director Kevin Macdonald, the script makes room for a tough-minded, psychologically corrosive depiction of vengeance.
Credit screenwriter Dennis Kelly for also anchoring the drama around the personal grudges and the inner demons of Robinson and his crew, a gaggle of cutthroats portrayed by the likes of Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Smiley, Grigoriy Dobrygin, David Threlfall, and Konstantin Khabenskiy. Each actor brings out a different shade of emotion in relation to the topic of money and sudden wealth, ranging from festering paranoia and consuming obsession to righteous vindication and unblemished hope. These outlooks underpin every interaction, most of which involve the characters barking through engineering and navigational jargon or indulging petty arguments over fair shares, national grievances, and superstitions. Throughout Black Sea, the narrative smartly sticks to conflicts in the present, between the opinionated crew members frying each other’s nerves, and barely bothers with the trove of WWII history that the plot’s McGuffin is steeped in.
Macdonald’s sturdy formal competence, as in his familiar but effective use of expressive lighting, brings out the urgency and tension in the lean story. And the predictable subplots that help define the characters—a young crew member has a pregnant girlfriend, Mendelsohn’s character drums up a prejudice against the Russians—are expedited at a kinetic pace from early on. The direction airs more on the side of dutiful workmanship than personal passion, and Black Sea ultimately, unapologetically comes off as a stripped-down genre exercise. As with the backstage political talk of The Last King of Scotland and the journalistic vernacular in State of Play, Macdonald is able to make the technical navy-speak not only engaging, but often breathless in the way he studiously cuts between the men syncopated in their singular, crucial roles of keeping the sub running.
As disagreements get heated and bodies begin to pile up, the plausibility of the mission becoming all the more uncertain, Black Sea tracks less the adventurous, extreme ends that Robinson is willing to go to than his obsession with getting at the higher-ups. The film does indulge the stereotype of the overseers’ representative, Scoot McNairy’s company man, being the most overtly weak-willed and manipulative of the bunch. Thankfully, the other fights and grudges evinced by the crew give enough variety to the drama that the more predictable narrative turns and characterizations don’t stick out. The film averts stoking any sense of simple underdog heroism, and instead highlights the idea of greed as a poison, pride as a noxious necessity in the wake of corporate indifference and a lifetime of thankless physical work. Macdonald is more interested in presenting all these minor and major conflicts as clearly as possible, rather than using his formal abilities to visually respond to or focus directly on the uglier feelings that are roused in the characters. But unlike the glut of his fictional work, Black Sea mostly overcomes both its limited scope and impersonal technique, working its synoptic trajectory for an impressive amount of wallop and scintillation.