While the transformation of Matthew McConaughey from romantic comedy joke to serious actor got lots of attention a few years ago, the ongoing transformation of Jude Law from highbrow eye candy to virtuoso character actor has largely escaped notice. But in movie after movie, Law keeps showing us new sides – a nervous wreck (“Side Effects”), an officious politician (“Anna Karenina”), a wacky Internet personality (“Contagion”), a Cockney safecracker (“Dom Hemingway”).
Now in “Black Sea,” we find him in the sort of role Sean Connery might have played in the 1970s, a working-class Scottish tough guy. It’s nothing like anything he has ever played, and though he looks more or less as he usually does, there’s such an essence change about him that it might take a second or two to be sure it’s really him. Law often looks angry and frazzled on screen. This time he looks angry and sure of himself.
He’s terrific, and he’s not the only good thing about “Black Sea,” and yet the movie just misses. Actually, it most definitely misses, but the reasons are elusive. It’s a well-acted submarine drama about desperate men in search of millions in treasure, and yet the overall effect is bland. If given a choice, we might all wish these fellows well in their quest. But taking a passionate interest in their success or failure is a whole other matter.
Law plays Robinson, who has worked aboard ships his whole life. When he gets fired from his job after almost 30 years at sea, he’s angry – angry enough to jump at the chance of easy money. Apparently in 1940, a German submarine went down to the bottom of the Black Sea carrying millions in gold bullion. When he finds out roughly where it is, he gets financial backing, puts together a crew of Brits and Russians and sets out to retrieve it.
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Most of what follows takes place underneath the sea, in an old World War II-era submarine, but no, this is not “Das Boot.” It’s more like “Das Boring.” Director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly try to engage our attention by exploring the Brit-Russian dynamic and by having the men talk about their personal lives. But in truth, the boat could blow up, and no one in the audience would care, so long as Law survived and got his loot.
Robinson is the film’s richest creation. He is so full of anger and disappointment, so burdened by the kinds of humiliations that (let’s face it) only money can assuage that watching Law we feel what he’s feeling and share in this man’s lust for something grand and splendid in life. He’s earned it.
But one strong character isn’t enough, at least not in an ensemble piece and not when that character is surrounded by walking cliches. There’s the young guy with his whole life ahead, so you’re supposed to care whether he gets killed, and then there are the Russians, who are rendered virtually indistinguishable. To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t go so far as to show the Russians dancing to a balalaika by the campfire, but that might be only because there are no campfires on a submarine.
“Black Sea” gets better as it goes along. The first half-hour is deadly slow, but as the perils mount, a certain momentum takes hold, though never quite enough to justify taking up two hours of your life. However, if you’re tracking Law’s career and want to see what he’s up to, the news is all good.
Rated: R for language throughout, some graphic images and violence
Starring: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald