Black Sea seemingly holds all the trappings of a rousing heist adventure. Its main character Robinson (Jude Law) is fired from his salvaging job, so he assembles a crew of mismatched archetypes, half British with salvage experience, and half Russian to pilot a Russian-make submarine. Their goal is to find a cache of lost Nazi gold at the bottom of the ocean, that only they and their mysterious benefactor know about. The only problem is that it is within Russian territory, so they will have to trespass without radio contact to the outside world in order to claim the treasure. Despite the film’s opening scenes, however, Black Sea has much more sinister intentions, as the claustrophobia of the ship’s environment comes to stand for less than smooth sailing.
Now, admittedly, the clear division of British and Russian crewmembers tends to feel a little contrived for the purposes of advancing conflict through misunderstanding and cultural tribalism, but that is largely forgiven in light of the film’s more important mechanism for controversy. Robinson declares that after their benefactor receives his cut of the gold, each crewmember will receive an equal share of the remainder. It is quickly pointed out, though, that should any of the crew perish, then the portions of the reward will consequentially get larger. The main conflict then doesn’t become against the environment to claim the Nazi gold, nor is it even between the factions of crewmembers, but it is the tension between wanting to murder one’s crewmates in order to receive a larger cut and keeping them around as necessities in operating the submarine.
This tension is just about all the film has going for it, as its characters generally aren’t much deeper than a description of a few words. Among the British, we have a blundering rookie, a corporate coward, and a grizzled veteran, and among the Russians we mostly see gruff bullies, with the exception of one who is sympathetic mostly through his ability to speak English and willingness to communicate once cultural relations start to deteriorate. Robinson, as captain, acts as the moral compass of the crew, wrestling with his own greed in light of losing crewmembers to various treacheries. Thankfully, though, the film is good enough at crafting harrowing scenarios that character depth is not really a necessity. At the end of the day, this is a film about human nature, not about particular individuals.
And its scenarios are certain to induce nail-biting, whether it comes to a virtual civil war among the ranks, attempting to salvage gold from the wreck at the expense of an essential part to repair their vessel, or simply trying to surface with damaged equipment and no way to call for help. The cold metallic hull that serves as the only scenery for most of the film’s runtime acts as a constant reminder to the danger that lies just beyond, and of the danger trapped within. Even when characters venture out in their salvage attempt, the risk of loss is omnipresent as they navigate the edge of a trench while putting everything they’ve worked for on the line.
Ultimately, Black Sea is a hell of a ride. It isn’t great by any standard, but there’s nothing outright wrong with it either. It serves up a terrifyingly human scenario and lets the pieces fall where they may. And those pieces fall precisely where they need to in order to deliver a gratifying two hours of entertainment.
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