Black Mass - A disappointing, mediocre gangster film
A Review by: Jeff Turner
Dir: Scott Cooper
Written by: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Julianne Nicholson.
Johnny Depp was the go-to character actor of the 90’s. Whether it was a film like ED WOOD or FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS or DEAD MAN, Depp was an entirely unique personality. He hit his peak in the early to mid-2000’s with other pretty good flicks that you may have heard of such as SWEENEY TODD, and the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. He’s been in a slump in the past five years though, people caught on to his Tim Burton collaborations, realizing that there isn’t much to it, and he began saying yes to films like MORTDECAI and THE LONE RANGER, both of which were WATERWORLD level bombs. Depp has hit a slump, and many were hoping that the new gangster film he stars in about Whitey Bulger, BLACK MASS, would signal his comeback. The answer? Yes, and no.
Whitey Bulger was a gangster who operated out of Boston in the 70’s and 80’s. He was feared even in the early days, but the thing about Whitey that BLACK MASS wants to focus on (not a bad topic at all) is how he primarily got big due to the willful ignorance of the FBI. Said agent is an old friend of Whitey’s, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who deliberately withholds evidence and comes up with ways to make sure the FBI doesn’t go after Whitey. He does this while fraternizing with Whitey as he does many things that are demonstrably worse than the people the FBI is using him to catch have committed.
Plenty elements of BLACK MASS work, namely the ensemble. This is easily one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen so far this year, if the film had a weak performance, I didn’t find it. Joel Edgerton is strong as an FBI slimeball who makes a deal with Bulger to move up the ranks of the FBI, he manipulates and puffs his chest through most of the scenarios that stand in his way. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger’s brother, and while some would argue that he is miscast, I thought he communicated authority and a certain Even without the ensemble, this is the first time in a while where Depp singlehandedly makes a movie even slightly worth seeing. He used to be a movie star for good reason.
I have some problems with the film. Namely the fact that despite its interesting story and potentially interesting characters, director Scott Cooper can’t create a film that is anything more apart from a documentation. The film hits certain points in history, but doesn’t seem to have any interest in extracting themes from them. It goes through the Wikipedia entry for Whitey Bulger but BLACK MASS doesn’t seem to have much interest in Bulger the man.
The FBI aspect is more interesting and better handled but under-explored. There’s a fun black comedy here about the politics of the bureau and how they ignored Bulger to get the gangs that would have earned them more publicity. I imagine this in the hands of someone like the Coen Brothers would be a much more interesting film.
The big problem with BLACK MASS is that it takes one too many cues from Martin Scorsese. Its part GOODFELLAS, its part DEPARTED, a little bit of MEAN STREETS. It doesn’t really ever find an identity of its own. Despite this, the film is still watchable, and I didn’t regret going to go see it. I wasn’t expecting it to go in one ear and out the other. BLACK MASS had potential, and utilizes some of it. It has moments where its fine, but its far from essential.