Just when you think there’s nothing new in the (home) theater of war, the Swedes suggest otherwise with Black Crab — a Swedish-language import now on Netflix that depicts a combat scenario playing out almost entirely on ice skates.
It’s not an ill-advised Olympics routine designed to detonate Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir’s well-coiffed heads. Instead, the feature-length debut from director / co-writer Adam Berg and co-writer Pelle Rådström mounts a persuasively apocalyptic vision while never neglecting its premise’s inherent meathead absurdities. The result is something like an Alistair MacLean and mean reimagining of such men-on-a-mission monoliths like Ice Station Zebra or The Guns of Navarone, with some effective, efficient updates.
Black Crab begins with a bang of gunfire in a tunnel, as masked insurgents abduct a woman’s daughter from the backseat of a car that has stalled in terminal traffic. Years later, the mother, Caroline (Noomi Rapace of Lamb), has become a hardscrabble mercenary in a blurrily defined Nordic skirmish (beyond whose borders the world spins on without care given a Stanley Cup reference). This is a traditionally desaturated contemporary vision of war in which deserters are strung up from overpasses, holes are torn through highrises, and cloud arcs meet smoke plumes as permanent skyline fixtures. Caroline’s life represents subsistence at its most elemental. Her way of thanking a woman for some food is to crush any hope that her benefactor’s husband may be alive: “Head south and forget about him,” Caroline advises.
Caroline is among a cabal of combatants conscripted by Colonel Raad (David Dencik of No Time to Die) for a mission he believes will change everything and end the war. A vast no-man’s-land archipelago has frozen over from the mainland to the open sea. It’s too thin for vehicles and too thick for boats … but just the right side of passable for humans on skates. Thus, Caroline and company are tasked to cover 115 miles of territory and deliver two canisters to a research base behind enemy lines “like a crab in the dark.” Should they succeed, they can leave the army and enjoy whatever life they want. For Caroline, that could be a life reunited with her daughter, whom Raad tells her has been sighted at the research base.
Amid fleeting fits and starts like Prometheus or Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Rapace’s Hollywood career has never really sparked since she arrived in the original adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In each of her action assignments, Rapace moves with the heightened awareness and swift response of a woman deeply attuned to the physical danger surrounding her and the envelope of emotions that it pushes. She should have become the next Sigourney Weaver. Instead, Rapace’s snub-nosed lethality and nigh-frostbitten fortitude regularly find themselves in the Netflix rotation. Not only is Black Crab a cut above Rapace’s 2019 Netflix film Close, it contains perhaps her best action performance yet. Watch how Caroline internalizes the news that her daughter might be alive. We know Raad can easily vacillate between truth and propaganda; he has said as much. With expert nuance, Rapace lets us see Caroline overwhelmed as much by a glimmer of hope as the embarrassment of perhaps falling prey to a manipulative ruse. She brings that power and poignancy to any moment in which she must process new, devastating information (often before pouncing on its messenger) and even infuses a bit of tenderness during a touch to the shoulder of a drowned comrade’s body, whose dead weight she must push off to save the mission.
Naturally, the morals of that mission (and Raad’s motivations) will start to crumble under the weight of questions that weigh an alleged greater good against the goals of those eager to survive this 115-mile suicide mission. There’s hockey aficionado Malik (Dar Salim); skittish soldier Karimi (Ardalan Esmaili), whose story of a girlfriend at another base may be sweet … or sabotage; the young, reedy sharpshooter Granvik (Erik Enge); the no-nonsense Forsberg (Aliette Opheim); and Lieutenant Nylund (Jakob Oftebro), a suspiciously late addition to the team.
Nearly each stop along the path of their journey along a desolate seascape-cum-landscape seems to claim one of the crew, whether they happen upon kindly old couples, investigate ice-logged luxury ships, evade helicopters on the open sea, or simply stand still too long on ice that’s too thin. The scores on the surface come to feel like striations in their psyches. The suspicion is fervently fomented among all of them; those “throw me the idol and I’ll throw you the whip” moments still carry a good charge. And in giving the equivalent of Quint’s speech from Jaws to the squad’s youngest member, Berg and Rådström underline the horrors of combat without undermining the visceral thrills. They also prop up their ruthless storytelling efficiency with brief flashbacks depicting how Caroline and her daughter experienced the fall, but not for the sake of sacrificing immediate, bracing Murphy’s Law momentum.
Does Black Crab limp a bit (in Caroline’s case, literally) toward its been-there, blown-that-up conclusion? Sure. That doesn’t diminish a mostly-killer, little-filler war film that is as much without relent as it is without remorse.