By James Hancock September 17th, 2015
Johnny Depp’s performance in ‘Black Mass’ as real-life crime lord James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is nothing short of awe inspiring. It has been years since I have seen an actor exude so much demonic menace with the slightest change in posture or facial expression. Cynics who have been ridiculing Depp for taking roles in movies like Mortdecai and Transcendence are about to get a major slap to the face reminding them that Depp remains one of the most talented actors of his generation. The only downside to Black Mass is that Depp’s performance vastly exceeds any other qualities that the movie brings to the table. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed watching Depp chew the scenery each and every second he is on screen, the rest of the movie is a relatively conventional crime movie about as effective as a below-average episode of The Sopranos. Depp is surrounded by actors who were either terribly miscast like Benedict Cumberbatch or who simply do not have the acting chops to keep up with Depp like Dakota Johnson. Listening to Dakota drop her Rs in an attempt to pull off a Southie accent is just painful. She’s not the only actor who has trouble capturing the flavor of the local dialect, case in point Depp’s co-star Joel Edgerton, who is hopelessly in over his head trying to occupy the same screen as the much more talented Depp. The problems do not stop there but none of them are so crippling as to prevent audiences from enjoying a performance that will surely go down as one of the best in the history of the gangster genre.
In an attempt to capture so many years of ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s life, I think the screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth were simply not up to the task of grappling with such a complex story structure. Based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the film chronicles Bulger’s rise to the power in the 1970s and 1980s. Due to shared history, Bulger agrees to partner up with agent John Connolly (Edgerton) of the FBI to take out the Mafia in Boston in exchange for protection of Bulger’s own criminal enterprises. With his younger brother working as a state senator (Cumberbatch), Bulger’s power and influence go relatively unchecked as he gradually rises to be the crime lord of Boston. The rise and fall of a gangster is a classic template that has been used many times to great effect, but where this movie goes wrong is in getting derailed and distracted by weaker subplots and characters that can’t compete with the central storyline. In the latter half of the movie Depp often disappears entirely from the story for long stretches of time and his presence is always sorely missed. So many scenes and beats fall flat if Depp isn’t there to prop them up with raw talent. I have not seen director Scott Cooper’s previous films Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, but it appears as if the epic scope of this film required him to juggle one too many balls simultaneously and he just didn’t quite pull it off. As obsessed as I am with gangster movies and the trappings of the genre, too much of the tone and drama of Black Mass feels inspired by other gangster movies as opposed to the true events upon which the film is based. The real problem is that Martin Scorsese’s The Departed still casts a very long shadow as far as Boston crime sagas are concerned and taken as a whole Black Mass does not compare favorably. But if you’re excited to see the movie, don’t let my nitpicking dissuade you from seeing it. In spite of the movie’s shortcomings, Depp’s performance alone is absolutely worth the price of admission and I strongly recommend anyone with a taste for gangster flicks see Black Mass at their earliest possible convenience.
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