Robinson (Jude Law) has just been sacked from his job as a submarine pilot after eleven years in the post since he left the Navy. He is given a paltry sum as compensation, but no pension since he didn’t have a contract from work he broke up his marriage to keep, just to make sure he could pay his bills and he’s not happy, especially now he cannot get any kind of replacement work in the same line, the market being as bad as it is. In particular for men of his age, and he feels he is on the scrapheap now with nothing to look forward to – that is until he is chatting morosely with a friend in the pub and he brings up the possibility of making money. Real money. The catch? It’s in gold bars at the bottom of the Black Sea…
There’s a joke by stand-up comedian Steven Wright where he says he likes to fill his bathtub and turn the shower on, then pretend he is in a submarine that has been hit, and according to the rules of submarine movies, you would find yourself waiting out this example for just such a scene. You would not be disappointed, though predictability was not always a problem in scenarios such as this, as long as you knew you were getting the thrills you were due when settling down with the subgenre (and sub genre) you might not be too put out when it unfolded exactly the way you would expect. Besides, there was more on this one’s mind than just the simple threat in a sinking vessel that was a staple of the style, thanks to Dennis Kelly’s script having something to say to men of certain years who felt their best days were well behind them.
Not through any fault of their own, really, more that the jobs situation in the modern world was forcing anyone with a skill into low pay, low ability work, and anyone in that position would jump at the chance to make a small fortune even if it did seem like a lot of effort. Robinson in this case is told to assemble a crew to sail a rusting old submarine to dive to the sea floor and salvage the Nazi gold in the wreck there, easier said than done as we discover, notably when not everyone aboard was pulling in the same direction. Was this a metaphor for society so conflicted that any attempt to get anywhere in this world, to better everyone’s quality of life, would be met with mishap because increasingly these days humankind couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery?
Or was Kelly making peril from the premise that came across as contrived when the characters simply refused to behave sensibly for various stretches of the movie? Kevin MacDonald was the director, no slouch when portraying people in hazardous situations, and he relished the challenge of keeping up the claustrophobic tension as far as that went, which was fine, yet the drama became frustrating once you noticed the crew were acting the way they did since if they just got along and were able to work together sensibly there would have been no problems at all, and a far shorter film as a result. This kicks off when Robinson tells them all early on (in a very strange Scottish accent) that they will be receiving an equal share of the loot once the already rich businessman organising the mission takes his substantial cut.
It doesn’t take a genius to fathom what that means, and indeed mere seconds after Robinson has broken this news the American representative (Scoot McNairy) is informing him he’s offered the salty dogs, a mixture of British, Irish and Russians, the perfect excuse to kill each other thereby guaranteeing themselves a larger amount of the booty. There’s no other reason for that scene, and it was clunky in itself, not least when it results in perennial bad ‘un Ben Mendelsohn stabbing one of the Russians he is annoyed with, again for no other reason than to send the submarine to the bottom of the sea in a state of disrepair. A thriller doesn’t have to be smooth, but to have the characters more or less turn suicidal through actions that never needed to occur spoke to narrative shortcuts and allowing the need for suspense and setpieces to drive the motivations rather than something more natural, so you tended to lose patience with everyone here. Music by Ilan Eshkeri.