Scott Cooper’s Black Mass features a remarkable performance by Johnny Depp in a rather unremarkable telling of a fascinating true life gangster tale. Taking place over a number of years starting in the mid 1970s, Mass concentrates on the Boston reign of James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious crime kingpin who was able to evade the law due to his status as an FBI informant. Much of his leeway is due to his friendship dating from childhood with agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Their union allows Bulger to roam the Bah-ston streets freely while giving up info that has the added benefit of eradicating his North Side Mob enemies. Connolly’s longtime connection leaves him either oblivious to who Whitey really is or perhaps a willful co-conspirator.
The film is told in a predictable flashback style as Whitey’s former associates are being questioned by authorities. For anyone who’s watched the news in the last few years, you’ll probably know the real Bulger successfully was a very wanted fugitive for quite a while. We don’t really become acquainted with these witnesses or the law enforcement agents outside of Connolly, but there’s lots of familiar faces playing them. On the good guy side, we have Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, and David Harbour (who is afforded a chilling dinner table scene with the star). Whitey’s henchman are played effectively by Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons. Benedict Cumberbatch’s role as Whitey’s politician brother is also underwritten and Dakota Johnson has a brief role as the criminal mastermind’s first wife. The best bit part belongs to Peter Sarsgaard as a coked out associate mixed up with Bulger’s corrupt involvement in World Jai Alai. That subplot, by the way, practically begs for its own feature if done right. Edgerton’s work is commendable and convincing as we slowly learn the dynamics of his relationship with the informant he’s known for decades and the ties that bind them.
Yet this is unquestionably the Johnny Depp Show. His menacing performance, with his giant baby blues and slicked back receding mane, reminds us of just how terrific this man can be. Depp’s trademark eccentricities are on display, but they feel necessary in service to the role he’s playing and not just present for the sake of being weird. It’s something that downgraded recent performances from him and his intense persona here is a breath of fresh and scary air. Truth be told, though, the moments here when Depp’s Bulger is terrorizing his associates are often the only scenes that generate real excitement.
That said, true story or not, little else feels fresh about Black Mass. We’ve seen a number of similar genre tales (some set in Boston) mingling the worlds of crime, law, and politics with greater effectiveness. One that immediately springs to mind is Scorsese’s The Departed, in which Jack Nicholson plays a more fictionalized version of Bulger. Many of the plot points that show up in Mass are contained in The Departed and it’s far more fascinating in the latter. That Boston gang drama earned Best Picture. Black Mass earns credit for allowing Depp to make this role a memorable one. For that reason alone, it’s probably worth a look for his many fans even if the material surrounding it is familiar and a little tiresome.
**1/2 (out of four)