Jude Law, once so shiny-penny-clean and pretty — and with the kind of chin dimple that might have inspired Audrey Hepburn to ask, as she did of Cary Grant in Charade, “How do you shave in there?” — is only now reaching the age where we can call his face interesting. In Kevin Macdonald’s Black Sea, he plays Robinson, a submarine captain who knows his job inside-out and up and down, devoting so much to it that he’s lost his wife and son. He’s been toiling for the same salvage company for 11 years, though as the movie opens, he’s been abruptly laid off. At first Robinson is stunned that his employer could cut him loose so coldly. But before our eyes his incredulity morphs into anger and disdain. Law’s Robinson looks wrung out, not just by work but by life: Skepticism, worry and disappointment seem to have permanently creased his brow. Even the little pads of fat beneath his eyes have a mournful, anemic quality, as if his undernourished soul had finally said, “I give up.” Law’s face has lost some of its waxen perfection. A sad reality of actordom is that men, unlike their women counterparts, are generally allowed to grow into their looks, or to change along with the seasons. At 42, Jude Law is just entering autumn, and it becomes him.
If only Black Sea could live up to him, or at least give him something to do beyond that potent first scene. But then, Black Sea is so almost-terrific that it’s ultimately more disappointing than a movie that’s merely badly or carelessly made. Macdonald takes great care with the pacing, building its sense of claustrophobic dread slowly and meticulously; the action is concise and crisply orchestrated. (How much action can you squeeze into a submarine? More than you’d think.) As heist movies set on subs go, it’s beautifully photographed, by Christopher Ross: In some shots, the faces are bathed in a high-contrast glow that makes them look like finely chiseled, art deco WPA sculptures — a look that’s fitting, given the pro-labor, big-business-shouldn’t-crush-the-little-guy themes.
There’s so much about Black Sea that’s admirable, and even more that’s entertaining, particularly in the first hour or so: Down on his luck, Law’s Robinson perks up when he hears about a cache of World War II-era gold that may be lying at the bottom of the Black Sea in a sunken U-boat. A mysterious American businessman, working through a not-so-mysterious American representative (Scoot McNairy’s high-strung businessguy Daniels), wants Robinson to assemble a crew to retrieve the gold; he’ll take a cut and leave the rest for Robinson to distribute as he sees fit. Eager to get back at his employer by putting his superior salvaging skills to work for his own gain, Robinson agrees. He and a Russian-born colleague, Blackie (Konstantin Khabenskiy, whose intentional English-mangling is one of the movie’s mischievous delights), assemble a ragtag crew of guys, half Russians, half Englishmen, who have little to lose and no problem sealing themselves up in a cramped, decrepit vessel that looks like a rusty toy when it’s at the surface and a groaning metal sea cucumber when it's below.
Macdonald — whose best-known picture is The Last King of Scotland, though he’s also the guy behind the intensely detailed documentary Marley — does some snappy work introducing that crew, deftly presenting each character in a way that makes you think he’ll actually have something to do: There’s Grigoriy Dobrygin’s level-headed navigator Morosov, Michael Smiley’s wry jokester Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn’s complicated asshole Fraser. At the last minute, for no credible reason, Robinson enlists an eager but awkward young kid, Tobin (Bobby Schofield), to save him from the street. Black Sea starts out like a less jaunty Italian Job, only in a submarine, and for a good long stretch, Macdonald makes you wonder if these grouchy misfits just might pull off the impossible.
He’s skillful at sustaining the tension; it’s the script, by Dennis Kelly, that lets him down. In the end, Black Sea is sunk by too much wobbly psychology: Too many characters behave in ways that, even for guys sealed up in a tin can and submerged jillions of leagues beneath the sea, just don’t make sense. Some are reasonable, until suddenly they’re not. Some start out greedy and shallow but inexplicably end up believing that living life is more important than gold. Others are whisked out of the story before we get any sense of what they were doing there in the first place, and one of the most likable characters is killed off abruptly, and way too early, in a sequence that makes no sense. Meanwhile, Law’s extraordinary gravity goes to waste: Robinson gets a few meaty crisis-of-conscience moments, but some of his decisions seem needlessly capricious, even for a guy whose sense of self-worth has been shattered. In the end, he does the right thing, as you know he will. Law is just good enough to make you believe it all, but he’d be better in a role that allowed him to come up for air.