Kevin Macdonald's 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 Black Sea's sense of claustrophobic dread slowly and meticulously; the action is concise and crisply orchestrated. And, 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.
Down on his luck, Jude Law's sub captain 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 and a Russian-born colleague, Blackie (Konstantin Khabenskiy, whose intentional English-mangling is one of the movie's mischievous delights), assemble a ragtag crew who have little to lose and no problem sealing themselves up in a cramped, decrepit vessel.
Macdonald -- whose best-known picture is The Last King of Scotland — 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. 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.