The time of Johnny Depp in make-up is certainly eclipsed by the gangster picture, though not by much. They come together in “Black Mass”, the true life story of Boston criminal and FBI’s 2nd most wanted James “Whitey” Bulger. Again since the days of James Cagney as the larger than life “Public Enemy” screaming “top of the world Ma!” to the time of Pacino as Tony Montana living his “the world is yours” in “Scarface” crime lords in both cinema and real life are never in short supply. Though here with Bulger, he didn’t need the ‘world’, he was content on controlling South Boston aka: Southie.
We meet the crew of Jimmy Bulger (Depp), they are haggard, old and incarcerated as they tell their story of their former employer who was a robin hood type in his neighborhood. He was nice to old ladies, appreciated loyalty, took care of his mother, respected his brother, but had no patience for bad manners. He was just small time in 1975 after a long stretch in Alcatraz, and decides to up his game by going against the Italian mob which at the time ran most of Boston. His chance to remove his competition comes in the form of former neighborhood friend turned Federal agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) who comes to Bulger with an offer to form an alliance.
If Bulger informs on his competitors and the Italians, he can conduct his own business as long as there’s no drugs or killing. Bulger promises, but has no intention of keeping his word as he murders and maims on a whim and is responsible for introducing a steady supply of drugs to his hometown.
As with most rise to power stories, it begins to build to a fall that could mean trouble for the government that allowed Bulger to commit crimes as long as he informed for them and Bulger’s brother Billy who is president of the Massachusetts Senate played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
What immediately stood out in this film is the really bad framing device of narration given by Bulgers associates. It feels disjointed and does more telling than showing. As far as the story itself, it straddles the line of typical to not-so-interesting. It seems as though director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) was trying for a thought provoking slow-burn instead of a fast paced crime triller. At times it does work and it certainly was mostly focused on character. That was the saving grace of the film, the performances are for the most part impressive. While Cumberbatch and Edgerton are slightly subdued, there is also all too short turns by Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, and the always entertaining Peter Sarsgaard. Then again this isn’t their film, it all belongs to Johnny Depp, who is stellar. And after a pretty dry run for him since 2011’s “Rango” he hasn’t been this great in a live-action film in quite awhile. He owns the Whitey Bulger character, instantly turning from silly to terrifying almost in the same scenes. There are times where the make-up is too promenent, and other times where he’s totally chanelling Christopher Walken, but for the majority of the film he is fantastic. Is “Black Mass” a great film? Not really. Is the story original? Not so much. Does Depp make the movie worth seeing? Fuggedaboudit.
–Robert L. Castillo