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Movie review: Jude Law can’t keep ‘Black Sea’ afloat

Jude Law stars as a submarine captain who leads a team after sunken treasure in “Black Sea.”
Jude Law stars as a submarine captain who leads a team after sunken treasure in “Black Sea.” Focus Features

His hair is thinning and his features are thickening, and Jude Law is evolving into a more interesting actor as this happens. He’s more at home in tough guy roles such as “Dom Hemingway,” and the gritty submarine thriller “Black Sea” is his latest one of those. But in this case, it’s a salty performance that seems just beyond his grasp.

Law plays Robinson, a newly laid-off submarine pilot whose marine salvage company has no more use for sub pilots. He’s a Royal Navy vet who “lost my family to this job.” And now he doesn’t even have that.

But a sickly ex-colleague knows of a score, a way to get even with “the bankers” and “people who get filth like us to do their dirty work.” It’s a Nazi submarine, lost in the Black Sea in the early days of World War II. And it might be full of Soviet gold.

All Captain Robinson has to do is procure a sub, recruit a crew, sidle up to it, send divers over and pluck out the bullion. Simple, right?

Of course, there’s the matter of who actually owns the gold rights, and the Russian Black Sea fleet that’s based close by.

Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) doesn’t do much with the “gathering the team” sequence. They need Russians and Brits, old salts – retirees. We learn that this diver (Ben Mendelsohn) is “a psycho,” and that Russian sonar recruit (Sergey Veksler) has “the best ears in the Russian navy.

To a one they’re misfits, hotheads, “penguins,” graceful and at home under water, “useless on dry land.”

Robinson, rather inexplicably, brings a kid (Bobby Schofield) along. More explicably, the mysterious financier behind the venture sends his landlubber American aide (Scoot McNairy) to watch after his investment.

Their sub? A retired Soviet rust bucket. The handful of Russian hires know how to operate it, but only Blackie (Konstantin Khabenskiy of “Nightwatch”) speaks English. The Brits are short-tempered and greedy, the Russians superstitious and fatalistic. We can guess how this will go wrong.

The sets are impressively corroded, damp and dank, from the worn wooden paneling in the crew quarters to the rusty big red stars that adorn each torpedo tube. The movie morphs from a heist picture to a sub survival movie to a Greed Gets to You thriller.

Mendelsohn, of “The Dark Knight Rises,” makes a creepy, mercurial impression. McNairy (“Argo”) makes a fine management weasel, and young Schofield generates a little sympathy.

But this is Law’s vehicle, and he seems more concerned with keeping Robinson real than in turning up the temperature on the performance. We may see the family he lost in flashbacks, but little of what motivates him is obvious. He hates “them,” i.e. “The Man.” He is determined to get that gold, come what may. But Captain Robinson is no Captain Queeg. His bitterness and a rage that is meant to suggest madness just aren’t there.

That contributes mightily to a third act that sinks this overlong, drifting thriller deep into the sea that is its title.

BLACK SEA

Cast: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Bobby Schofield, Ben Mendelsohn, Konstantin Khabenskiy, Grigoriy Dobrygin

Director: Kevin Macdonald

114 minutes

Rated R (language throughout, some graphic images and violence)

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