Johnny Depp is just too huge of a talent for “Black Mass” to be a total letdown, but given the lineup of other top-tier actors in the cast, not to mention the source material and the resume of the director, long before the credits rolled, a sinking feeling of mild disappointment had set in.
This is a good, solid, well-executed crime story. Nothing more, nothing less.
Rest easy, “Goodfellas” and “Casino” and “The Departed.” You’ll not be challenged today.
We shouldn’t have to issue a spoiler alert when discussing a story that was splashed all over the news for so long, but if you haven’t heard, James “Whitey” Bulger was a notorious gangster who ruled South Boston with a bloody fist from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, until the feds closed in on his operation and Whitey fled the coop. For years Bulger was second only to Osama bin Laden on the Most Wanted Fugitives list, until he was finally apprehended in Santa Monica in the summer of 2011.
“Black Mass” isn’t about Bulger’s life on the lam. It’s a relatively straightforward telling of Whitey’s rise to power in Southie in the 1970s, his precarious alliance with a childhood friend who had become an FBI agent — and the inevitable unraveling of his grubby little empire.
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A common criticism of even the best and most brutally honest films about gangsters is they glamorize the criminals who are at the center of the story. You’d be hard-pressed to say that about Whitey Bulger and his associates in “Black Mass.” This is not a man with charisma or dark humor or even much in the way of diabolical leadership skills. He’s just an ambitious thug who surrounds himself with mouth-breathing sycophants and often takes matters into his own hands, whether it’s strangling a young woman who MIGHT inform on him, or gunning down an enemy in broad daylight.
It’s almost never a good thing when makeup is a distraction, and unfortunately that holds true here. Depp sports a a receding hairline, grayish skin, and weird, almost milky contact lenses. (And sometimes sunglasses that look like they were left over from his portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson.) The end result: He looks like he could turn into a werewolf or a zombie at any moment. It’s overkill.
Nevertheless, Depp has more than a few chillingly effective scenes as Bulger, a violent hood who emerges from an extended stint in Alcatraz and goes about taking control of his old South Boston neighborhood. Whitey plays cards with his dear ol’ Ma , he dotes on his son, he takes care of lifelong pals and the good people of the neighborhood — but he’s also a sociopath who floods schools with drugs and routinely murders enemies and disloyal associates.
Joel Edgerton is Connolly, who has idolized Whitey since they were kids. Now an ambitious but not overly bright FBI agent, Connolly persuades Whitey to become an informant against the Italian mobsters running northern Boston. In return, Connolly and the Bureau will look the other way when it comes to Bulger’s criminal activities — as long as he doesn’t go too far. (Shades of “American Hustle,” without the outlandish scenes and the wicked humor.)
Fine actors from near and far try their hands at Boston accents as they weave in and out of the story. Benedict Cumberbatch brings a Kennedy-esque touch to his performance as Whitey’s younger brother Billy, a powerful politician.
Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott are FBI operatives. Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson do fine work in small roles as spouses in hopelessly doomed relationships. Jesse Plemons and Peter Sarsgaard are terrific in villainous roles.
Working from a script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (who adapted a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill), director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace”) seems nearly as fascinated with the machinations of the FBI investigation, and Connolly’s increasingly reckless obsession with protecting his old friend Bulger at any cost, as he is with the story of Whitey Bulger.
We get very little insight into what turned Bulger into such a psycho. After a few early glimpses into Bulger’s personal life, “Black Mass” devotes sparse attention to anything other than his criminal activities and his meetings with his pal Connolly. (In fact, scenes shot with Sienna Miller as Bulger’s girlfriend when he was a fugitive didn’t make the final cut.)
In one of the film’s most effective scenes, a dinner conversation turns cold and menacing, with Bulger letting an ally know he’d better not turn on him. It’s terrific stuff — but it’s far too reminiscent of the legendary “Funny how?” scene with Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas.”
Don’t go there if you can’t play with the big boys.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Scott Cooper and written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Running time: 122 minutes. Rated R (for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use). Opens Friday at local theaters.