Review: Jude Law surprisingly strong in submarine thriller "Black Sea"

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By Brad McHargue, Film Critic

Defying the odds in a month of mostly bad and forgettable films, director Kevin Macdonald’s submarine-set thriller “Black Sea” joins the ranks of Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” as a January release that subverts expectations by actually being good, nay, great.

It begins with grizzled salvager Robinson (Jude Law) losing his job as a submarine pilot and facing an ex-wife that wants nothing to do with him and a son he never gets to see. So it’s no surprise that he’s enticed by an offer from a shadowy investor to salvage a sunken U-Boat alleged to contain millions in Russian gold. With his Russian friend Blackie (Konstantin Khabenskiy), he calls upon a team of Russians and Brits to pilot a rusted submarine into the depths of the Black Sea to retrieve the gold.

After tragedy forces him to replace his friend Kurston (Daniel Ryan) on the crew with the 18-year-old Tobin (Bobby Schofield), a string of bad luck plays out for the crew, prompted by conflicting personalities and goals of the seemingly unstable crew. As they descend into the murky waters, their tension bubbles up.

Law gives a menacing performance with his gruff accent and determined eyes, portraying a captain driven to be a father figure to the young Tobin while also giving the finger to the greedy companies that left him out of honest work. Honest to a fault, he offers each man an equal share of the bounty — a decision met with some derision, especially the slimy Daniels (Scoot McNairy). Daniels, the reluctant passenger and right-hand man of the shadowy investor, wonders aloud at what’s stopping the men from dispatching each other to claim a greater share.

Despite his seemingly ulterior motives, his concerns aren’t without merit. Tension quickly mounts as the Brits and Russians disagree on Robinson’s financial decisions, with each man driven by their own fatal flaws. It’s here where the film truly shines, with each character crafted in a meticulous manner and brought to life by a stellar group of actors. Chief among them is Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), a “psychopathic” master diver; Baba (Sergey Veksler), a good-natured sonar expert who shows no allegiance to anything but his craft; Zaytsev (Sergey Puskepalis), a hulking brute of a mechanic; and Reynolds, a relatively grounded and level-headed submarine pilot played by inimitable Irish actor Michael Smiley.

"Black Sea" has the usual elements of a submarine thriller, including the claustrophobia of the confined vessel and the unseen terrors of the inky black water, but that's not all it uses to drive home a sense of terror in the viewer. The true terror comes from the delicate and easily influence crew members' states of mind. While not horror in the strictest sense, Macdonald and writer Dennis Kelly's story is crafted no less horrific than a masked slasher chasing a half-nude teen in the woods. The script and Justine Wright's editing keep the tension amped and the story moving at a rapid-fire and mostly unpredictable pace.

But unlike the slasher in the woods, "Black Sea" balances its familiar set-up with a fascinating character study, elevated by an amazing cast and bolstered by an exceedingly powerful score by Ilan Eshkeri. Its simple story belies its complex themes and characters, making for an engaging thriller and a welcome addition to the January blight.

"Black Sea" is rated R for language and violence. Running time: One hour, 55 minutes. Four stars out of five.