Jude Law has always been an interesting actor. But now, well into his 40s, he's become a different kind of interesting, wielding the brand of appeal that stems more from having a lived-in face than a billion dollar smile. Once a headlining pretty boy, he's starting to look like the years have dealt him a few blows, his features carved up by lines into which viewers can project all manner of character histories. He's a movie star who became a character actor. I mean this in the best possible way. I can only dream of balding quite as gracefully. What it all adds up to is a face and physical presence that's caught up with his emotional depth as an actor, a development that's allowing him to shed the Jude of old and slip more naturally into a wider range of roles.
Even when the part handed to him isn't a particularly unusual one, Jude 2.0 turns it into something deeper. Such is the case with his seemingly archetypal role as submarine captain Robinson in Kevin McDonald's terrific new film Black Sea, laid off in the opening scene by the salvage company he'd dedicated a decade plus of his working life to. That scene alone is an acting marvel, the camera drawing in close as Law lets waves of disbelief, humiliation and rage wash over him, his newly bulky shoulders bunching up with tension. Nor does he let up for the rest of the film. His potent and unpredictable performance provides the emotional fulcrum for what turns out to be a particularly entertaining example of the old-school submarine thriller a la Das Boot or (slightly more contemporary) Crimson Tide. Robinson, angry and despondent after the layoff, hears from another ex-employee about a sunken U-boat full of Nazi gold that the salvage company was eager to get its hands on but couldn't due to legal and political complications. Cajoling funds from a shady businessman, he assembles a sweaty and volatile group of unemployable Russian and English seamen, obtains a rusty relic of a submarine and sets off to retrieve the gold from the bottom of the Black Sea, motivated as much by an overriding need to stick it to the Man as he is by the money.
Once a headlining pretty boy, he’s starting to look like the years have dealt him a few blows, his features carved up by lines into which viewers can project all manner of character histories. He’s a movie star who became a character actor. I mean this in the best possible way.
McDonald, best known for making The Last King of Scotland, acquits himself well, utilizing an unobtrusive but effective visual style that maximizes both the sense of claustrophobia so essential to this sub-genre and the forward momentum required to keep us (mostly) distracted from the lapses in plausibility. He's also refreshingly deliberate with the pacing, eschewing the sensory overload approach adopted by so many contemporary thrillers and taking his time setting up the characters, mood and conflicts. As a result, the first hour of the film is actually the most enjoyable, letting us spend some time in the company of Robinson's motley crew, all of whom have well-delineated and memorable personalities brought to life by a highly credible multinational cast. Of particular note are the increasingly ubiquitous Ben Mendelsohn as a twitchy type who's as calm in a diving suit as he is hotheaded outside it, Scoot McNairy as the uptight businessman representing the crew's mysterious benefactor, and Konstantin Khabenskiy as Robinson's Russian right-hand man whose (possibly deliberate) bastardization of the English language is a source of much amusement. The character dynamics provide much of the film's abundant tension as hostility and suspicion start to build between the Russian and British halves of the crew, and personality quirks are magnified by close quarters into character flaws unforgiveable enough to attract violence. There's none of the usual lighthearted banter of your average heist picture. This one's an altogether grimmer kettle of packed-together fish.
The film gets marginally less interesting when things go south, betrayals start to come hot and heavy, and bodies start to drop. But, that said, the action in the second half is well-staged and exciting. Any third act shortcomings are down mostly to a breakdown in the hitherto effective character arcs and interpersonal dynamics as crew members start to make decisions that range from foolhardy to unbelievably stupid. In the middle of it all, however, is Law's magnetic presence, steady at first, increasingly unhinged later, but always keeping the vessel (literal and metaphorical) intact through smooth sailing and rough patches alike. As he turns into a blessed hybrid of Jason Statham and 70/80s-era Michael Caine, it's nigh on impossible to take your eyes off him.