Heist movies are universally loved yet rarely reinvented, as they typically assemble a band of misfits who work towards a collective criminal goal involving immense riches. Most of the time you’ll see a bank being robbed, or there’s the Ocean’s gang infiltrating casinos, and we can’t forget when those Fast & Furious boys/gals stole an entire vault – but we haven’t seen that many underwater heist films.
Sure, Black Sea isn’t a straightforward smash-and-grab story, but Kevin Macdonald’s latest film is an unconventional heist movie at its core. There’s a rag-tag team, their treacherous submersible journey, and a buttload of Nazi gold hidden deep inside a sunken German U-Boat – there just happens to be a little more drama involved thanks to the creaky Russian submarine used to navigate Jordanian/Russian waters. Don’t expect a quirky seafaring adventure from this lot of gold-digging sailors, because I can assure you that writer Dennis Kelly channels the Black Sea’s darkness every moment he gets.
Macdonald enlists Jude Law to play a submarine captain searching the depths of the Black Sea for sunken Nazi gold, a man helming a rusty old heap on the dime of a shadowy backer. Along for the ride are a group of Russian/British cohorts (including actors Grigoriy Dobrygin, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Smiley, and Konstantin Khabenskiy), along with the backer’s financial consultant (Scoot McNairy) as a form of insurance. Carrying out their mission under the Russian navy’s nose, Captain Robinson (Law) must make crucial decisions in order to keep his men alive, but in the wake of mutinies and technical blunders, the treasure hunt turns into a fight for survival. Can the men escape with the gold and their lives, or will the ultimate sacrifice be made in the face of greed?
While searching for Nazi gold on sandy ocean floors sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, Black Sea insights a bit of chaos by locking many clashing personalities inside of a cramped submarine. This isn’t a Danny Ocean production, where collaborators butt heads in funny ways before making up with a begrudging handshake, but instead a social experiment sullied by greed, redemption, and personal survival instincts. Macdonald doesn’t shy away from a darker, serious tone brought upon by claustrophobic conditions and conflicting ideals, sparking a little bit of anarchy beneath the ocean’s glassy surface. The hunt for gold is nothing but a catalyst that evokes suppressed feelings, hidden demons, and a last grasp at something life-altering – not a swashbuckling adventure.
The bleakness of Black Sea is both a strength and weakness, for vastly different reasons. While I appreciate a film that doesn’t sugarcoat the loss of human lives, making enemies out of lunatics supposedly working together, the methods in which characters depart feels structurally forced in some cases. This isn’t just any heist where a few muscly thugs can be wrangled up. Captain Robinson’s plan is a technically refined mission involving divers, a highly-pressurized situation, and a submarine needing many specialists – yet Robinson enlists a random kid pulled in off the street when his partner declines? Why start a gang war aboard a submarine with no escape, when there’s a common goal at stake? Can humans really be this despicable? Kelly’s examination of morality in the face of panic packs a heavy punch when executed without showmanship, but some deaths and risks seem absolutely asinine with survival in mind, even when trying to argue there’s an expected mental deterioration brought upon by frantic wishes of survival.
Macdonald’s saving grace is a stellar cast led by Law, still in shape from his turn as Dom Hemingway. Law embodies a fearless leader slowly losing grip of his (once) faithful following, and he does so while putting forth the masculine intensity needed to quell national territory wars breaking out across a metal tomb. Even more impressive are his crew members, turning in pitch-perfect roles as only Michael Smiley and Ben Mendelsohn can. While I’d wish Mendelsohn could get a role playing the hero more often, watching him waver in and out of sanity is still too much of a treat worth enjoying – and Smiley is one of the most charming everymen around. Robinson’s Russian allies are also lovable in their own burly, heavily-accented ways, as the likes of Sergey Veksler and Sergey Puskepalis look like they could tear down the Iron Curtain by themselves.
Black Sea is a damn interesting concept with some questionable execution, but becomes a serviceable watch thanks to a group of “seamen” who find themselves switching from robbers to survivalists quicker than they anticipated. Macdonald constructs an immersive seascape, nailing the vast nothingness that divers blindly trudge into, but clouded judgements reign supreme whenever monumental decisions are to be made. With that said, Black Sea takes viewers on a unique ride with a poignant historical background, exploring great depths in search of a new take on heist movies – something the cast hammers home while cabin fever sets in.
Black Sea presents a unique twist on heist movies, and while the human drama may feel a bit clunky, the sum of all parts moves nicely from start to finish.