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Review: 'Black Sea' is a seaworthy submarine (and heist) picture

A Scots-accented Jude Law goes to sea to find Nazi gold in a grimy, pitiless and genre-splicing romp.
Black Sea

Jude Law, center, plays a submarine captain out for Nazi gold in "Black Sea."

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‘Black Sea’
Director:
Kevin Macdonald
Stars: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Submarines are like whores,” growls someone in “Black Sea.” “The old ones know how to look after you best.” So too do submarine movies — an old, reliable genre(seaworthy, if you will) whose simple pleasures — people scrambling about in tight confines, quiet tension pierced by loud pings, a reasonable amount of watery homoeroticism — are hard to screw up. “Black Sea” hits all the marks, but it also thinks bigger. It’s a sub movie spliced with a heist picture. But why stop there? It’s also an angry class drama; a portrait of international clashing; and it’s set aboard not just a submarine but a grimy, clanky, geriatric submarine, which looks ready to rust as soon as it submerges.

The bent towards dirty realism makes an oddly nice fit a tale tall as they come. Jude Law plays Robinson, an ornery, recently unemployed lifer (with passable Scots accent) who falls into a hare-brained scheme: At the bottom of the titular sea allegedly lies a sunken WWII ship, stocked with millions in Nazi gold. He and a ragtag wild bunch — a mix of British and Russian crew (plus one Australian, played with reliable untrustworthiness by Ben Mendelsohn) — will slink past authorities, find the boat, load up the booty and spend the rest of their lives living high on the hog.

Nothing goes simple, and that’s not even considering that one of the crew members may figure out that less men on board means a higher cut of the winnings — or that one of them may think someone would think that and act rashly. That issue is gotten out of the way quickly, leaving room for more twists, including one revolving around a sniveling corporate stooge (Scoot McNairy) whose presence is more than a little reminiscent of Paul Reiser in “Aliens.”

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But the pleasures aren’t in the hairpin turns; they’re in the way it chugs along, blending its genres into a thick stew. It even resembles a space movie when it’s time to go outside the sub, the ocean floor resembling a sticky alien landscape with characters moving in slow-motion through near dark. The director is Kevin Macdonald (not to be confused with “Kids in the Hall” genius Kevin McDonald), who’s an all-over-the-place Renaissance man. He’s done documentaries (“Touching the Void,” “Marley”), self-important Oscar bait (“The Last King of Scotland”) and historical fluff (“The Eagle”) without exceling at any.

With “Black Sea” Macdonald finds himself; this is a sturdy genre film with just enough ambition to something more. His frames are claustrophobic and dirty; the colors are piercing blues, reds and piss-yellows. And it’s tough and pitiless, save thankfully infrequent dips into Robinson’s rosy past with his MIA wife and his paternal relationship with the teenage son (Bobby Schofield) of a dead friend, who’s come on board for lack of anything better in his life. It’s debatable that “Black Sea” goes too nice in its final stretch, but not before treating a good chunk of its cast to the worst kind of death imaginable.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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