‘Black Sea’: Jude Law in a substandard submarine story

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After a promising start, “Black Sea” takes a jarring, hard port into Looney Tunes Land, and never recovers.

SPOILER ALERT example: One of the men on the sub wants another man dead, but he’s too much of a pansy to do it himself, so he attempts to persuade the resident psycho to do it.

At first the instigator throws out a couple of not-so-subtle hints. Then he finally says, “You should kill [let’s call him Mr. X].” And then, when Mr. X isn’t looking, the instigator looks at Mr. X, looks at this patsy and gives an exaggerated nod, like something out of a silent movie.

We get it! He wants Mr. X dead. All right already.

The positives in “Black Sea” include a rousing performance from Jude Law, an intriguing setup and some well-choreographed action scenes within the claustrophobic confines of a creaky old submarine on a dangerous mission in the deeps of the sea.

The negatives? Most of the supporting characters are straight out of the Book of Clichés; the underwater sequences are so realistically murky they’re … well, murky; there’s a heavy-handed father-son metaphor that just won’t quit, and about halfway through the story, our hero seems to have lost his bloody mind.

Jude Law plays Robinson, a Scottish submarine captain who spent 15 years in the Navy and 11 years working in the private sector. (Law’s attempt at a Northeast Scottish brogue comes and goes from scene to scene. I can’t think of a single reason why they didn’t just have him play a British submarine captain. The Royal Navy has submarines, no? Maybe it’s because the director is Scottish …)

Robinson was so dedicated to the job it cost him his wife and son. (“Black Sea” is the second movie in the last month, after “Still Alice,” to resort to the obligatory That Perfect Day on the Beach flashback to encapsulate happier times.)

After Robinson gets sacked by a slick twerp who explains, “We don’t need submarine captains any more. We don’t even need submarines,” he drowns his misery at a local pub with a couple of pals who already been dismissed by the same evil heartless corporation.

If only they could stick it to the man! If only this movie didn’t have so many moments where Robinson talks about sticking it to the man. At times it felt like the film should have been titled, “Occupy Submarine.”

Conveniently, one of Robinson’s buddies has an inside tip that could make everyone rich. Turns out there’s at least $40 million in gold aboard a sunken Nazi U-boat in the Black Sea, there for the finders-keepers’ taking.

Scoot McNairy plays Daniels, a classic Sniveling Corporate Weasel who puts Robinson in touch with a mysterious kazillionaire (Tobias Menzies) who agrees to fund the mission in exchange for a beefy percentage of the profits.

Robinson staffs a rickety, Russian-made submarine with six Brits and/or Scots, and six Russians.

Of course, the moment we’re submerged is the moment things start to go wrong. There’s a lot of tension between the Russians and the English-speaking crew; the Sniveling Corporate Weasel is forced to come along, even though he’s claustrophobic and he’s a Sniveling Corporate Weasel; one of the crew members has emphysema and can’t walk two steps without breathing heavily, and the best diver on the sub is a straight-out psychopath.

How do we know he’s a psychopath? Because one of Robinson’s pals tells Robinson the guy’s a psychopath before they board the sub, and yet Robinson still allows the guy and his knife to join the expedition.

And oh yeah, there’s an 18-year-old (Bobby Schofield) who’s never been on a submarine in his life, yet Robinson hires him and becomes an instant father figure to the lad, because Robinson was a failure as a father to his own son.

As the body count piles up and the submarine begins to break down, Robinson keeps on railing against the wealthy and continually puts his crew at risk, because he wants that gold and nothing will get in his way! That’ll show the ex-wife!

It’s a startling change of direction for Robinson, who seemed strong and capable and focused at the outset, and is now rubbing the bloody bump on his head, sweating profusely and barking orders like a mad dog. As much as I enjoyed Law’s performance, he’s at the mercy of a screenplay that grows increasingly bizarre and unbelievable with each passing moment.

“Black Sea” director Kevin Macdonald is a talented filmmaker who ventures from fiction (“The Last King of Scotland”) to documentary (“Touching the Void”) with aplomb. There’s some first-rate camerawork aboard the sub, that strong lead performance from Law and one nifty plot twist.

It’s a shame the script gives us one of the most incompetent and ridiculous submarine crews this side of “Down Periscope.”

[s3r star=2/4]

Focus Features presents a film directed by Kevin Macdonald and written by Dennis Kelly. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated R (for language throughout, some graphic images and violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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