Black Mass (2015)

Black Mass (film) poster.jpg
Gangster's Paradise

Director: Scott Cooper
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson

In 1970s Boston, Irish Mobster James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp) is made an offer by John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI Agent who grew up with Bulger. The bureau and Whitey will collaborate, trading secrets to bring down the Italian mob. What wasn't foreseen was how this alliance would spiral out of control, allowing Whitey to circumvent the law and rise into one of the most ruthless and powerful gangsters in Boston's history.

To say Johnny Depp's career has been in a tailspin is a fair summation. Barring a few exceptions, the past few years has seen the star being typecast in "quirky" roles off the back of his turn as Captain Jack Sparrow. The tired repetition of these recent performances has seen a cameo in 21 Jump Street to be possibly his best role in years. This makes it all the more refreshing to see how Depp clearly puts his all into this role. Acting behind steely blue contacts, Johnny Depp portrays the infamous Irish mobster to a chilling degree.

Director Scott Cooper uses Bulger as a spectre of death, looming over the scenes with an ominous presence to leave you on edge as to what will happen next. One scene has him quizzing an FBI Agent over a secret recipe, an unimportant item which is revealed without much difficulty. Things then take a turn as Bulger's expression turns serious, as he openly questions the agent's ability to keep things a secret. It's a tense scene which is followed up by another tense confrontation, the two hander acting as a clear example of why Depp should not be counted out just yet.

From the way John Connolly talks about Bulger, it's clear he idolizes him and still wants to be his friend, a goal held onto since childhood. Joel Edgerton portrays this hero worship to a pitch perfect degree, giving a good idea as to Connolly's choice to protect the mob boss to whatever degree he can. Dakota Johnson does well as Bulger's wife, but is given very little to work with in her short time onscreen. Peter Sarsgaard plays unhinged well in the only way he can, giving an entertaining performance which compensates for the weakly written character.

Bulger exchanges words with Connolly

The script, by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, tackles things in an uneven manner. Their emphasis appears to be on smaller, unimportant moments as opposed to the larger effects of the gangs actions. So while we bear witness to a scene of Bulger ordering his men to help an old lady put away her shopping, we're unable to see the pain his actions cause for the city of Boston. Surely Whitey introducing drugs to children warranted it's own scene more than the off-hand mention it gets?

Throughout the picture, Whitey's portrayed as somebody who acts careful with his kills. He's shown as the man who takes people to empty places where he won't be seen, or offing people from behind closed doors. So why does he end up shooting at one car in a packed parking lot, where anybody can see him? It's a heel turn which feels out of place for this character, no matter how "psychotic" he's been said to be.

The story itself is rather disappointing. The unholy alliance of Bulger and the FBI is an interesting enough topic to deserve a decent adaptation, but the flat and uninspired material leaves a lot to be desired. Scott Cooper doesn't help things here, leaving many scenes less than lively as it plods along to the next event. It doesn't help things how the framing device is pretty much unnecessary, while aspects of the film feel derivative. It's clear the aforementioned "secret recipe" scene is trying to emulate Joe Pesci's famous scene from Goodfellas, but feels less like it's own thing.

The best thing Black Mass can offer are the fantastic performances on display, as well as the return of Johnny Depp at his best. The rest leaves little worth recommending, containing the depth of a Wikipedia entry and the excitement of watching paint dry.