Friday, January 30, 2015

Black Sea: No treasure here

Black Sea (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang

Something’s rotten in the state of cinema...

Back in the day of classic Hollywood “disaster movies” — a cycle that began with 1970’s Airport — the survival rate was roughly an audience-acceptable 50 percent. This issue revolved around key characters; in 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, we lost Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Roddy McDowall, Leslie Nielsen and Stella Stevens, while Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Pamela Sue Martin, Jack Albertson, Carol Lynley and Eric Shea made it to daylight.

Frustrated by the mutual hostility that divides his Russian and British crew members,
Robinson (Jude Law, center) angrily orders the men to get along ... while promising that
this clandestine submarine mission will make them all very, very rich.
In 1974’s The Towering Inferno, Robert Wagner, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain and Susan Flannery got toasted, while the survivors included William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Fred Astaire. (Paul Newman and Steve McQueen weren’t in the building.) And so it went, with Earthquake, the various Airport sequels and others.

More to the point, many of those who perish do so heroically or tragically, in some cases while saving others. We feel for them. Yes, all such films have their villains, but no more than one or two ... and they always get their just desserts.

Things have changed.

These days, disaster/survival films have become slaughter films: mainstream cousins of the countless “dead teen” horror flicks that erupted in the wake of 1980’s Friday the 13th. Most of the characters are nameless, faceless and two-dimensional, just like all those doomed teens: stick figures present solely to be killed, under unpleasant and often ludicrous circumstances. Nobility and self-sacrifice are absent, replaced instead by venal and brutish behavior.

If we’re lucky, one person might survive, as in 2011’s odious Sanctum, which raised the bar for acceptable mainstream butchery. Alternatively, nobody survives, as with 2012’s The Grey. Heroic effort proves futile.

Which, in my mind, makes such films rather pointless.

And deplorably mean-spirited.

I’d hate to think this attitude shift reflects our national psyche; if it does, we’re in a lot of trouble.

All of which brings us to Black Sea, ostensibly an action thriller from director Kevin Macdonald, best known for absorbing dramas such as The Last King of Scotland and State of Play. I say “ostensibly” because you shouldn’t believe the promotional slant; this is actually a disaster movie. Which is to say, in the current vogue, a slaughter-fest.

And an insufferably dumb one, at that.

It doesn’t start out that way. Dennis Kelly’s original script is on solid ground during the first act, and Macdonald draws solid performances from key cast members; we get to know — and like — several of them.

Jude Law does a fine job in the starring role as Robinson, a working-class, ex-Navy man who has made a post-service career as a submarine captain working for an ocean salvage company. As the film opens, he’s abruptly dismissed, “made redundant” in the manner of many equally embittered mates he often sees at the local pub.

On this particular day, one of them shares a secret involving a WWII-era German U-boat that was glimpsed in the Georgian depths of the Black Sea. Having been fired that same day, the guy never shared this information with his bosses; ergo, nobody else knows that the sub is sitting there.

Better still, historical evidence suggests that this particular U-boat was laden with Russian gold: an intended payment to Adolf Hitler, to prevent a Nazi invasion. The Eastern front became a quagmire anyway, and everybody forgot about the gold.

Robinson embraces this story, seeing it as an opportunity to spit in the eye of his former employer, by sneaking a treasure out from under their noses. But it’ll take financing, a sub and a crew. The former arrives in the form of a clandestine investor brought into the mix by a go-between, Daniels (Scoot McNairy).

This allows Robinson to purchase a vintage Russian diesel submarine, and assemble a crew of British and Russian roughnecks: disenfranchised men who have similar axes to grind against established authority.

At the last minute, Robinson winds up with two additional crew members: Tobin (Bobby Schofield), a naïve and impressionable 18-year-old boy; and Daniels, ordered to participate in order to keep an eye on his shadowy boss’ investment.

The Russians are essential, because they’re familiar with the sub workings. But they clash with their British counterparts, mutual distrust igniting from the start. Robinson has his hands full, keeping tempers cooled.

Except that he can’t, and we know this, because one of his own buddies — Fraser, played by Ben Mendelsohn — is an unhinged sociopath. It’s only a matter of time before he does something dreadful.

Meanwhile, the testosterone-fueled atmosphere grows increasingly tense, as the men nurse their ancient sub toward the spot where the German U-boat is believed to rest. Personalities emerge, with solid performances delivered by Konstantin Khabenskiy, as Blackie, the savvy appointed spokesman for the Russians; Sergey Veksler, as Baba, the talented sonar operator; and Grigoriy Dobrygin, as Morozov, a quiet observer who misses little.

On the British side, Michael Smiley is persuasive as Reynolds, the sage voice of reason, and a veteran of such missions. Schofield also establishes a strong presence as the inexperienced Tobin, whose participation upsets the Russians; they view the presence of a “mission virgin” as bad luck. (Boy, they aren’t kidding!)

At first, McNairy’s Daniels is welcome comic relief: a white-collar twit hopelessly out of his depth (pun intended). But Daniels soon reveals different colors, at which point his character becomes virtually identical to the smarmy corporate weasel played by Paul Reiser in 1986’s Aliens. Indeed, the lift is so similar that Kelly should be ashamed of himself, for claiming “original” plotting.

Everything goes wrong, of course, with various men losing their lives for increasingly absurd and contrived reasons. But Robinson remains doggedly transfixed on their mission, determined to keep going despite the complexity of running their sub with a dwindling crew.

Kelly does deserve credit for concocting a clever third-act twist ... but by this point, the film’s deplorably vicious intentions have become glaringly obvious, and it’s just a matter of idly wondering who’ll get dispatched next.

Granted, Macdonald and editor Justine Wright build up some claustrophobic tension, mostly early on; Law also does his best to hold the film together, much the way his character tries to hold the crew together. It’s a futile struggle, in both cases.

Production designer Nick Palmer makes ample use of the vintage Russian Foxtrot-class submarine provided for the shoot; the setting certainly looks, sounds and feels authentic.

But Kelly’s storyline turns unpleasantly grim and malicious, ultimately unforgivably so. It’s no fun to see valiant effort go unrewarded, or to watch engaging characters picked off so arbitrarily. Ultimately, Black Sea is contrived and stupid.

Which makes us 0 for 3, in this month’s fluky “black” miniseries, following the equally unappealing Blackhat, and the thoroughly ludicrous Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death.

Frankly, they all deserve each other.

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