Empty Balcony: Black Sea

Is Jude Law still famous? I ask because appearing in a film like 2014’s Black Sea is either the sign of a flagging career, or a sign it’s time to find a new agent. Every star eventually ends up doing marginal projects like this. Go ahead and peruse the output of Bruce Willis or Nicolas Cage for a pair of prominent examples. And that’s good for the shitty movie fan. A little talent in a shitty movie can go a long way. Too bad this flick isn’t shitty. It’s just mediocre.

From writer Dennis Kelly and director Kevin Macdonald (who helmed The Last King of Scotland) comes a story of Nazi gold, submarines, and a salvage operation gone wrong.

Jude Law stars as Robinson, a submarine driver for a salvage company in the UK. He’s just been let go, as the company has decided to invest in remote controlled and robotic equipment, making his position redundant. This really chaps Robinson’s ass. The job is just about all he had after the divorce (of course). He’s drinking and scowling at the local pub when another former employee of the salvage company, Kurston (Daniel Ryan) tells Robinson about a sunken submarine that he located while on a job. Kurston, and the company, believe that the sunken wreck is a German U-Boat from World War Two that was carrying two tons of gold onboard. The salvage company can’t go after it because the wreck lies in disputed waters in the Black Sea.

Robinson, with investment from a mysterious backer represented by the weaselly Daniels (Scoot McNairy), comes up with a plan. For merely $180,000, a Russian by the name of Blackie (Konstantin Khabensky), can acquire an old, decommissioned Soviet diesel-electric submarine. Robinson and Blackie then assemble a crew. Russians to run the sub, Brits to handle the salvage. The idea is to sneak to the site of the wreck underneath the watch of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, enter the sunken sub, retrieve the Nazi gold, and slip back out again without anyone noticing. It’s an absurd plan, from start to finish.

For one thing, they buy a military submarine. That’s ridiculous, but it’s a movie, so the hell with it. But the sub is a total rust bucket. I didn’t buy for a second that this lemon could actually get underway on its own power, much less dive underwater. Again, movie. Black SeaAnd it’s actually part of the charm. Interiors and some exteriors (most of the sub exteriors are sub-standard CGI), were shot aboard the B-49, a Foxtrot-class sub that was once part of the Soviet Baltic Fleet, and has since become privately owned and moored in England. So, it’s perfect for the film. Not much more can be said than that.

What we have is a heist film. Like all heist films, all the carefully, and not-so-carefully, laid out plans go awry. Audiences will be able to see things coming a mile away in this film, because one of the members of the crew is played by Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn, as a rule, never plays characters who are emotionally stable. He plays unhinged and unrepentant killers. If he shows up in a film, it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens. Such is the case, here. Mendelsohn’s character starts trouble with the Russians, Blackie gets in the way, and all of a sudden the rickety sub is on the bottom of the Black Sea, the Russians and the Brits are pissed at each other, and gold is the last thing on everyone’s minds. I won’t spoil any further. It was enough to share that setup.

What fails this flick aren’t the ideas, but the execution. There are a few too many tropes and a few too many knuckleheads in the sub. No one seems to be able to think more than 30 seconds ahead, which makes for a nice bit of unpredictability in an otherwise rote film, but I have a hard time believing this many stupid decisions could be made one after the other in real life, and that’s coming from a reviewer who has a pretty low opinion of humanity. Black Sea is a fairly middling thriller. Its general air of mediocrity almost made me check out early. But then I remembered this is a heist film that takes place aboard a submarine, and it features Ben Mendelsohn locked in a confined space with a bunch of potential victims. One could do worse.

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