Scottish director Kevin Macdonald seems to be attracted to stories of men under pressure.
That has manifested itself in ways both marvelous (the harrowing 2006 film The King of Scotland about life with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin starring James McEvoy) and mediocre (the testosterone-fueled, sword-and-sandal silliness of The Eagle with Channing Tatum .)
Now, with Black Sea, starring Jude Law as literally a man under pressure — he’s helming a crew on a rogue submarine in a hunt for lost gold — Macdonald falls closer to his former glories.
While the film doesn’t cut nearly as deep as Scotland, it’s nevertheless a suspenseful, taut thriller with political undertones that delivers on its low-key promises.
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Law is Robinson, a working-class, middle-aged Englishman who has just been laid off from his long-time job with a company that salvages ships and material from the ocean depths. In other words, this is a man who knows his way around a submarine.
That his expertise and stellar years of service couldn’t keep him off the unemployment line brings out bitterness and resentment, feelings he shares with his drinking buddies, some of whom have been laid off, too.
That’s when one of them lets him in on a secret: a benefactor (Tobias Menzies) is willing to fund an off-the-books underwater search for a German U-boat full of gold that supposedly sits at the bottom of the Black Sea near Crimea. (According to the film, the gold was on its way from Stalin to Hitler as a payment/bribe to not invade Russia during WWII.)
All that’s needed is a captain with a steady hand and a crew, a bunch of guys who won’t be missed if things go sideways. The steady hand is Robinson, who organizes a rangy mob of lower-class Brits and Russians, each of whom is angry at the world for a variety of reasons.
Chances are they’d be much less upset when they get their share of the gold, which Robinson promises will be divvied evenly.
Causing friction is Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn, Exodus: Gods and Kings), who doesn’t trust the Russians and wants them to get less of the loot. Also not helping matters is Daniels (Scoot McNairy, Halt and Catch Fire), the benefactor’s middle-management eyes-and-ears who is the kind of white-collar, upwardly mobile guy this crew hates.
They see him as the face of an uncaring system that threw them out of work in the first place. They call him “banker,” and it’s not meant as a compliment.
Needless to say, finding and getting the gold turns out to be the least of their problems.
The story begins slowly, but once it gets into open water, Macdonald keeps things moving quickly, conveying the sense of unease and claustrophobia the story demands.
While the hapless, unmanly Daniels character verges on cliché — can he get any more sniveling? — the other members of the crew are more shaded, whether it’s the thoughtful Morozov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) or the scared youngest member of the team, Tobin (Bobby Schofield).
Black Sea may not be Macdonald at his best. The aforementioned King of Scotland and State of Play, his 2009 film starring Russell Crowe as a journalist on a big story, have more impact.
Still, it’s certainly better than his last couple of features — The Eagle and the tepid young-adult, dystopian-future adventure How I Live Now.
Welcome back, Kevin.
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Cary Darling, 817 390-7571
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy
Rated: R (strong language throughout, graphic images, violence)
Running time: 115 min.