Black Sea drowns in own claustrophobia

January 29, 2015

Claustrophobia can be a little maddening. At least, that seems to be the overarching message of Black Sea, an anxiety-inducing, modern pirate romp featuring a Scottish-accented Jude Law on a submarine. The accent might be the film’s crowning glory—watching Scots and Russians duke it out in a windowless tube over potential shares of an alleged Nazi treasure on the bottom of the ocean certainly is not.

The leading man at the center of those pillow fights is, of course, Jude Law, somewhat unbelievably playing a rough talking, bitter ex-Navyman with a considerable chip on his shoulder. His layoff has sent him spiraling into despair and self-doubt, trying to find ways he can take revenge against the system and regain his manhood over pints at the pub.

Sound familiar at all? A similar problem of mislaid masculinity has been extensively explored in The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. Black Sea just takes the same conceit and adds pirates to the mix, though it fails to elicit the same kind of strange empathy that keeps the audiences of those shows rooting for the anti-hero.

This is mostly due to the fact that Law’s character is not nearly as skillfully fleshed out as Tony Soprano or Don Draper. His consuming desire to get back at the powers that be for their crimes against him makes seem him almost cartoonish in his blindness to all other factors. The other characters are similarly one-dimensional, especially the Russians, who are relegated to the realm of ethnic stereotypes when the fight between crew members over shares of the gold begins.

The greatest breath of fresh air might be the soft-spoken 18-year-old that Robinson takes under his wing, their surrogate father-son relationship adding a much-needed dose of sanity to the unspooling chaos. Nevertheless, it’s not quite enough to rescue a film that turns the darker, limitlessly opportunistic side of human nature into artifice, rigidly orchestrating an implausible conflict between nations and classes.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald, a Scot with a clear affinity for his native land (his most famous work is The Last King of Scotland, but he first made his name with highly acclaimed, high-stakes documentaries like Touching the Void), Black Sea is a film that lures the audience in with an apparently exciting premise (pirates! historically-related treasure! accompanying adventures!) and quickly unravels what might have been at least a reliably arresting thriller.

Macdonald seems to have squandered the cultural mandate he had gained from his past successes on a story that fails to retain its senses when its characters lose their own. The gift for realism and examining the tension that springs up between people in high-stakes situations at the center of his documentaries is not present here. Instead, we get easy answers to the far more complex question of human motivation.

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