For an adventure set on (or, more accurately, beneath) the high seas, there’s something peculiarly low-key about “Black Sea,” a modern-day pirate thriller — complete with buried treasure — in which maritime derring-do takes a backseat to subtler, neo-Cold War skulduggery. As ruggedly crafted as you’d expect from director Kevin Macdonald, with a sturdy ensemble led by Jude Law as a submarine captain of formidable sangfroid, the film nonetheless never quite sparks to life: The predominantly stern tone of Dennis Kelly’s script sits oddly with its fanciful plotting, while the emotional temperature of proceedings largely matches the icy depths in which they take place. Commercially, the pic faces choppily competitive waters when it opens in Blighty on Dec. 5; Stateside, Focus Features is unlikely to regret holding fire until late January.
Macdonald’s Oscar-decorated credentials as a docmaker have lent a certain sinewy authority even to commercial productions as far-fetched as 2011’s sword-and-sandal gruntfest “The Eagle,” though he made an ambitious digression with last year’s dystopian youth romance “How I Live Now,” a forbidding but affecting antidote to purpler trends in YA cinema. While “Black Sea” finds him on more familiar macho turf, it shares something of his previous film’s political sobriety, not to mention a stoic resistance of its own to the most lurid genre impulses: Even at its most gung-ho, this is a narrative that hinges on the bitter personal resentments and regrets of its characters.
It’s not just the dank submarine setting that’s claustrophobic here; nearly every man on board is clenched as tight as a fist. None more so, of course, than Law’s ex-Navy captain Robinson, a hardened seadog who finds himself unceremoniously dismissed by the ocean salvage corporation for whom he has spent over a decade working. Understandably disgruntled, he wastes little time gathering a motley crew of similarly laid-off employees for a leap-of-faith mission: Having heard tell of a Nazi U-boat loaded with Russian gold ingots buried somewhere beneath the Black Sea, he hires a barely seaworthy vintage sub and sets off in search of the booty, promising every man an equal share of its value if found.
Robinson’s democratic approach, however, stokes discord amid a collective already fractiously divided along cultural lines, with the boat’s Russian and British crew members (the latter faction joined by wild-card Australian diver Fraser, played by a very ripe Ben Mendelsohn) conspiring viciously against each other. It occurs to both sides that the fewer the survivors of the journey, the greater the monetary reward for those who remain — and from this clean, classical premise, with its pointed nod to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” Kelly constructs a melodrama of ethics in which no participant covers himself in glory.
Whether the men themselves are compelling enough to sustain audience investment in their avaricious struggle for nearly two hours is another question: Speaking mostly in their (unsubtitled) native tongue, the Russians draw the short straw in a script that generally characterizes them as the bellowing brutes of ’60s-era movie villainy, with the exception of taciturn young go-between Morosov (the excellent Grigoriy Dobrygin, disappointingly underused). Other outliers on board include shifty Yank financier rep Daniels (Scoot McNairy, increasingly a go-to guy for perspiring evasiveness) and wide-eyed young hireling Tobin (promising, tousle-haired newcomer Bobby Schofield), whose bullying treatment at the hands of his older shipmates prompts the emergence of Robinson’s long-suppressed paternal instincts. (Robinson’s personal backstory, meanwhile, is limited to a handful of obliquely gauzy beachside flashbacks.)
Delivering his pithy dialogue in a distractingly needless (albeit not-half-bad) Aberdeen brogue, Law anchors the enterprise with gravity and commitment, though he falls just short of making viewers care whether or not his closed book of a character succeeds in his madly driven quest. Frequently called upon to cool conflicts between secondary characters rather than ignite them, he could probably stand a little more to do in the story: Kelly has recently garnered much acclaim for his high-concept Channel 4 series “Utopia” (soon to be remade in the U.S.), so it’s surprising that his first feature screenplay is so sparing with its narrative obstacles. If the film’s few major action setpieces are rarely as climactic or fantastic as one might expect them to be, that isn’t to say this is strictly an exercise in realism: The finale, in particular, contains almost enough logical holes to sink the most robust battleship.
When “Black Sea” is at its most immersive, however, it owes much to the resourceful camerawork of d.p. Christopher Ross (working on a more industrial scale than in his previous work), who navigates the pic’s necessarily restricted dramatic space with nimble aplomb, and avoids the murky pitfalls of this particular subgenre with boldly primary-colored lighting schemes. Nick Palmer’s production design is similarly outstanding, evoking the cast-iron rot of Cold War-era military craft, while Ilan Eshkeri’s brashly old-fashioned score occasionally appears to be demanding a more banzai film. The film’s digital effects work reps its only shortfaller on the technical front, with its few underwater exterior shots of the mechanical beast failing to convince — a further indication that Macdonald’s interests here, for all the story’s muscular external trappings, are primarily of an interior nature.