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Movie Review

In ‘Black Sea,’ there’s gold beneath the waves

Jude Law (above) leads a search for a sunken U-boat and gold bullion in the depths of the Black Sea.
Jude Law (above) leads a search for a sunken U-boat and gold bullion in the depths of the Black Sea. (Travis Topa/Focus Features)

Director Kevin Macdonald first made a name for himself with documentaries, winning an Oscar for the Munich Olympics flashback “One Day in September.” Later, it was on to a run of taut features, most notably “The Last King of Scotland” and Forest Whitaker’s own Oscar-winning work as Idi Amin. Still, some might argue that Macdonald made his strongest impression with “Touching the Void,” his dread-laden documentary account of ill-fated Andes climbers tested by loyalty and survival instinct. Now he relocates some of that tension from the top of the world to its watery depths for his latest feature, “Black Sea,” a contemporary submarine thriller that serves the genre well.

Fusing familiar machismo with a trace of Ken Loach’s hardscrabble social realism, Macdonald casts Jude Law as Robinson, a scruffy sub captain whose burr is vaguely reminiscent of Mr. Scott’s when he spouts naval tech-speak. We first get a look at Robinson as he’s being coldly pink-slipped by his marine-salvage outfit, then at a pub where a similarly struggling shipmate hints at an off-the-books job that could help them turn things around. Soon Robinson is meeting with business slickster Daniels (Scoot McNairy, TV’s “Halt and Catch Fire”) and the wealthy speculator he represents to hear the proposed mission: locating a multimillion-dollar stash of gold bullion said to have gone down with a Nazi U-boat during World War II.

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Robinson jumps at the opportunity, fueled by have-not determination not to let some company dictate — nay, ruin — his life anymore. He gathers a half-British, half-Russian crew, promises them all equal shares of the loot, and slips beneath geopolitically dicey Crimean waters in a rusty deathtrap masquerading as a submarine. Sure, he’s willfully ignoring character flaws and cultural divides, but he’s doing what he must — there’s no available diver as good as psycho Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn, “Animal Kingdom”), and all of the sub’s gadgetry is labeled in Russian. McNairy’s jittery landlubber tags along, and so does Tobin (solid newcomer Bobby Schofield), a directionless but well-meaning teen with a tie to Robinson’s ill-fated pub pal.

Macdonald skillfully hits all the requisite beats. Unexpected company popping up on the sonar. Fire and flooding in the most claustrophobic of spaces. A plunge to (curse the term!) “hull-crush depth.” Nerve-jangling undersea-canyon maneuvering. Mutinous rumblings. Amid the action gloss, though, we keep returning to that sense of passing time with beaten-down Brits desperately scraping to escape life on the dole, and realizing there may be none. It’s a potently sinking feeling, for them and us.

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The sunken U-boat.
The sunken U-boat.(Giles Keyte/Focus Features)

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Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.