Kevin Macdonald has had an extremely interesting directorial career. Cutting his teeth on documentaries (One Day in September, Touching the Void, Life in a Day, Marley), he’s transitioned to feature films, and over the last 10 years he’s made a career out of making solid, unpretentious dramas (The Last King of Scotland, The Eagle, State of Play, How I Live Now) that don’t find a big enough audience in theaters. They’re smart, they look good, the material is adult-minded, the …budgets are medium sized, and his narratives don’t feature superheroes, giant special effects, or easily marketable elements. His most recent film, Black Sea, fits right into this mold. Every time I notice that this one is airing on one of the movie channels, I have to join it in progress; movies like this are my bread and butter.
Dennis Kelly’s sturdy screenplay cleverly combines two popular genres – the submarine movie and the heist picture – and tells a swift, suspenseful, just-believable-enough story that hooks you from the first scene and keeps you in its firm grasp for two entertaining hours. Jude Law leads a gang of submariners, divers, and technicians in an effort to salvage buried Nazi gold that’s been sitting on the ocean bed inside of a WWII-era German U-boat. They gain access to an extremely weathered submarine that they carefully navigate to the U-boat, grab the gold, and that’s when greed kicks in, people start getting killed, issues flare up with the battered sub, and it becomes a guessing game of who will make it back up to the surface for a breath of fresh air.
This is a movie of sweaty, greasy, unshaven faces, with lots of smoke and steam filling the frame, peppered with great underwater photography and some excellent, claustrophobia inducing shots inside the hull of the sub. Macdonald’s direction is muscular but never overpowering and he’s just as concerned with motivation as he is with violent spectacle. While nothing revolutionary, Black Sea is content to tell a simple, engrossing tale of deceit and exciting action, with a seething resentment for the upper-class buried within the hardscrabble mindsets of its grizzled characters. Manly and macho and brimming with testosterone, this fits snugly alongside undemanding but capable genre entries like Jonathan Mostow’s U-571 and Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated K-19: The Widowmaker.