The billing is more than a little misleading. “Universal Soldier” cohorts Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren may be listed in the credits (and promoted in the advertising art) as co-stars of “Black Water,” but it’s up to Van Damme to do most of the damage in this routine VOD-centric action thriller set aboard a submarine employed as a CIA black site. Throughout most of the movie’s perceptibly padded running time, Lundgren’s character is incarcerated in a dank prison cell on the sub — next door to the one in which Van Damme’s character fleetingly cools his heels — where we periodically see him reading, exercising, meditating, and generally looking very Zen. To call this a cameo role would be overly generous. Truth to tell, Lundgren enjoys a greater percentage of screen time, and engages in slightly more rough stuff, in the punchy music video for Imagine Dragons’ “Believer.”
Van Damme dutifully handles the lion’s share of lifting as Scott Wheeler, a CIA op whose deep-cover mission to expose a rogue agent takes a turn for the worse during a shootout at a Mobile, Ala., motel. The bad guys subtract Wheeler’s lovely partner and playmate (Courtney B. Turk) from the equation and seize a flash drive containing info about … about … well, never mind, it doesn’t matter — the dingus is just a MacGuffin anyway. All you need to know is, in order to access this particular dingus, you need a unique dongle.
Wheeler survives the shootout with the dongle in his possession. But since he has good reason to suspect he’s been betrayed by a traitor in the ranks of U.S. intelligence, he’s understandably reluctant to reveal where he ditched the dongle after he’s forcibly detained by a team of CIA and FBI agents and heavily armed freelancers.
All of which leads to Wheeler’s being carted off to the recommissioned submarine that one character aptly likens to Gitmo. While a skeleton crew of Navy personnel operates the vessel in a sealed-off area, the spooks set about the task of interrogating and torturing our hero. (Well, at least he seems to be the hero of the piece.) Right from the start, however, it’s clear that Wheeler is too tough to crack, and too shrewd to remain restrained. Rhodes (Al Sapienza), Wheeler’s CIA mentor, gives his associates fair warning: “He so much as gets his hands on a strand of floss, and he’ll find his way out of here.”
As it turns out, shooting, not flossing, is what allows Wheeler to make his escape, as his captors turn against one another while acting out one of scripter Chad Law’s predictable plot twists.
Like many small-budget B movies intended mainly for small-screen consumption, “Black Water” consists primarily of people running, shooting, hiding, and colliding at various points along dimly lit corridors. (Or, in this case, passageways.) Cinematographer Pasha Patriki, here making his directorial debut, proved capable of handling comparable mayhem in close quarters while shooting “Gridlocked,” a better-than-average 2015 quickie set mostly in a secluded police outpost. He evidences similar proficiency here, although he must periodically rely on stock footage of submarines to convince the audience that, no, what they’re seeing isn’t happening in a deserted warehouse somewhere.
Van Damme, appearing appropriately weather-beaten, gamely goes through the motions while picking up an easy paycheck, while Jasmine Waltz struggles, with only sporadic success, not to generate derisive laughter from the audience as a rookie CIA agent who becomes Wheeler’s reluctant ally. Eventually, the mismatched pair need a third player on their team, so they spring Marco (Lundgren) and hand him a gun or two. Not surprisingly, Lundgren is refreshed and well rested by the time his character joins the fray. Unfortunately, he doesn’t stick around long enough to work up a sweat.