Black Mass (2015)

Review #1,216

Director:  Scott Cooper
Cast:  Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard
Plot:  The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf.

Genre:  Biography / Crime / Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  122min
Rating:  R21 (M18 - censored theatrical release) for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use.
Distributor:  Warner Bros

“Take your shot but make it your best.  Cause I get up, I eat ya.”

This is not quite the film to get you pumped and excited, but what Black Mass offers is a reminder of Johnny Depp's great talent as an actor.  He sheds his eccentric (and perhaps now woefully regarded) Burton-esque and 'Pirates' tags and transforms into James Bulger, one of America's most notorious gangsters. 

Black Mass is a serious drama, and Depp is in his element here with a standout performance that is cold and frightening, yet his character's traits which value such virtues as honour, loyalty and brotherhood make him difficult to dislike too.  Bulger's story is told with clarity and straightforwardness, almost always in retrospect, as the authorities grill the accused (those who worked with Bulger before) on his criminal activities. 

The film operates chronologically, tracing key moments in his life, including his family and controversial dealings with the FBI.  The thrust of Black Mass comes from Bulger’s relationship with John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who forms, according to the movie’s tagline, an ‘unholy alliance’ with the wanted gangster.  Connolly wants to get rid of organized crime in South Boston, particularly the Italian mafia, and secretly enlists the help of Bulger and company to do so. 

It could all be pretty fascinating, but it only promises fascination in small buckets.  Part of the reason Black Mass doesn’t engage as well as it should lies in its treatment, which doesn’t really break new ground with the genre.  Those familiar with movies about organized crime will find this good but not great. 

Depp’s performance does help to elevate the film, though it must be said without Edgerton, Black Mass will be significantly less interesting.  Edgerton has come into his own as an actor since his breakthrough in Animal Kingdom (2010) and Warrior (2011), and the fact that he matches Depp bite-for-bite gives Black Mass a strong dramatic core.  Other supporting players like Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Johnson give what is necessary, but nothing more. 

Only director Scott Cooper’s third film after Crazy Heart (2009) with Jeff Bridges winning his long overdue Oscar, and the relatively mixed Out of the Furnace (2013), Black Mass may not be a superb movie, but it is no doubt a welcome addition to Depp’s seemingly uninspired filmography of the last ten years. 

Verdict:  Doesn't break new ground with the organized crime genre, but still a moderately entertaining film with standout performances by Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton. 


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