Black Sea—Submarine pictures almost always work, even the bad ones. There’s something inherently dramatic about that setting, with its inescapable allegorical resonances about the utter hostility of the environment outside the fragile cosmic and social bubbles in which humans live, and the terrible interdependence required for survival even within those bubbles. Corny dialogue and laborious dramatics usually can’t defeat that atmosphere.
When a submarine movie has strong actors and dialogue, so much the better. Happily that’s the case with Black Sea, directed by Kevin Macdonald from a script by Dennis Kelly.
The star is Jude Law, spitting an indignant Scottish accent. He’s Robinson, a sub captain who’s been laid off, with a pathetic severance, from the salvage company to which he’s given his post-Navy career. He gets financing to take a rust-bucket ex-Soviet sub to the bottom of the title body of water, in search of one of the traditional adventure-movie McGuffins: Nazi gold! There’s a sunken U-boat down there, see, containing a fortune in bullion extorted from Stalin just before the war heated up.
Robinson’s crew is, again traditionally for the genre, “ragtag”—a scruffy assortment of Brits and Russians, along with one American, a repellent corporate rep (Scoot McNairy). Weary after years of risking his life to make rich people richer, Robinson is determined that each member of his crew will get an equal share, as all are equally risking their lives. The American creep warns him that this naïve egalitarianism will cause trouble, and alas he’s not wrong. Treasure of Sierra Madre-style greed, suspicion and resentment soon arises, and spirals into violence.
Black Sea is like some freaky hybrid of Clive Cussler and Noam Chomsky, and its overt, rather fatalistic economic didacticism is often in danger of tipping over into heavy-handedness. But it doesn’t, quite. Many episodes—transferring the treasure across the ocean floor from the wreck to Robinson’s sub, for instance, or trying to steer through a narrow canyon—are tense, nerve-jangling showpieces, and the cast is an appealing rabble of grizzled seadogs that keep the drama personal and vivid.