Black Water starts off strong but falls short in the second act once it turns into a cookie cutter game of cat and mouse. Jean Claude Van Damme stars as Wheeler, a highly trained CIA agent who becomes a high value target for the government once they discover he’s looking for a leak in the agency by using a USB flash drive that needs two components to activate. His partner Melissa (Courtney B. Turk) holds the drive while Wheeler stashes the activation key. The agency’s standard operating procedure went out the window when Wheeler breached national security. When Wheeler wakes up bewildered on the ground of a jail cell, snapping out of sleep with aches and bruises, it takes cellmate Marco (Dolph Lundgren), a mysterious man who’s imprisoned next door to inform Wheeler that they’re 30,000 leagues underneath the sea. Marco spends his days reading, drawing and performing exercises while imprisoned, as Wheeler awaits his interrogation, attempting to recall how he got captured. Seasoned cinematographer Pasha Patriki, who’s making his directorial debut, takes us on an action-packed flashback explaining Wheeler’s origins.
We’re then taken to Alabama, where Wheeler meets with Melissa to exchange their flash drives. After an intimate affair, they awaken together the morning after and it’s clearly obvious to the eye that the framing and composition of the film is lackluster, as the sunlight blazes through the window reflecting its light upon the lens of a shaking camera as it pans to the faux slumber of Wheeler and Melissa. This is accompanied by an emotional musical score that represents Wheeler’s solitude, allowing us to sympathize with his character. But when his hotel room gets ambushed by half a dozen agents dressed in black, they fire off perpetual rounds of ammunition in an attempt to execute Wheeler and acquire the USB components. The gunplay in this sequence is the highlight of the film. When Wheeler gets caught and imprisoned into a submarine, the action takes a backseat and the movie turns into a an uninteresting escape story that we’ve seen before, despite the plot twists that we’re not strangers too, either.
One can’t help but recall Andrew Davis’ Under Siege (1991), in which Steven Seagal played a NAVY seal who’s also the ship cook, in a superior film involving government agencies and the seas. In Black Water, though Dolph Lundgren shows up to bare his knuckles in the final act, he barely plays an active role for the first two acts; leaning back on his cell bed or doing push-ups; uninvolved in the film and almost forgotten about. The stand-out character in this film is Agent Ferris (Patrick Kilpatrick) who holds Wheeler responsible for the deaths of fellow agents. But in an unsurprising twist, the emphasis placed on his character as the villain to Wheeler’s hero is suddenly reversed, giving the villainous spotlight to Agent Rhodes (Al Sapienza), who trained Wheeler at Camp Peary’s “The Farm” facility when he was a clandestine officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. Aside from Jean Claude Van-Damme and Dolph Lundgren’s reunion which is incomparable to their Universal Soldier films, there is a notable scene where Patrick Kilpatrick’s Agent Ferris interrogates Van Damme’s Wheeler with a startling laugh, almost as if he’s calling attention to their collaboration of hero vs. villain in Death Warrant (1990) – when Van Damme played a police officer who infiltrates a jail to investigate murders, only to cross paths with a criminal from his past played by Patrick Kilpatrick as the notorious “Sandman”.
All of these reunions and collaborations aside, the film ends up falling short as the final act turns in to a predictable escape film where Wheeler attempts to prove his legendary status with the CIA and convince the government that he’s not a traitor. There is somewhat of a surprising twist for an ending, but the imbalance of action and numerous implausibilities don’t add up to the level of intensity the film attempts to convey. The musical score by Spencer Creaghan is subtly emotional and serves as the perfect supplement to certain scenes. Some of Van Damme’s acting is intentionally humorous and in terms of action, the martial arts legend still has the goods in his solid performance. What starts off promising and entertaining, turns into a cookie cutter game of cat and mouse. Certain casting decisions were questionable; the film would have been more worthwhile had Patrick Kilpatrick portrayed the character of Agent Rhodes, since his bold stage presence demands great attention and could have serviced the film throughout its entirety. And the character of Cass (Jasmine Waltz) who portrays a clandestine officer on the submarine aspiring to be promoted, resembles the physical and character traits of Melissa – Wheeler’s partner and love interest. Seeing Cass partner with Wheeler on the submarine with assistance in their escape, results in an unrealistic coincidence of similarities between two characters involved with Wheeler’s objective.
It’s incredibly challenging to produce a submarine film on a low budget, especially when your going up against the ranks of Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide (1994) or John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October (1990). It’s difficult to refrain from comparing Black Water to similar films and almost inevitable considering the aforementioned are great films of cinema’s past. Even though those two submarine films are big budget studio classics that are on another level, they set the standard for what it takes to create a pulse pounding submarine film. And when that’s embedded in the American moviegoers subconscious, it’s difficult to prevent oneself from comparing Black Water to its superior predecessors. Fanatics of Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren alike will flock to stream this movie, but once they discover that Dolph Lundgren is barely in the film, it may or may not disappoint. As all he does is sit in his cell for the film’s majority; his activity in the final act may or may not satisfy the fans of his work, as we wish he had more screen time. It’s a nice concept on the one-sheet poster, marketing the return of Lundgren and JCVD, reunited. And it’s fun to see JCVD fight his son Kris Van Damme, who plays one of the villains. All in all, beggars can’t be choosers. If you like Van Damme and Lundgren, here you go; they gave you Black Water.
Black Water is available for streaming On Demand, YouTube and Amazon Prime.