Published Sep 17, 2015Much has been made about Johnny Depp's casting in Scott Cooper's new crime drama, Black Mass. For many, it signalled a back-to-basics approach for the once critically acclaimed actor, with Depp (at least by initial estimates) doing away with the layers of makeup, feathers and God knows what else from his last few films and digging into a deeper role.
Make no mistake, though: Depp is still in full-on caricature mode playing Southie crime lord James "Whitey" Bulger (he looks more like Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker's Dracula, what with his pale complexion and lizard eyes, than a true gangster), but there's a slight difference here.
Long story short, Depp seems almost reinvigorated playing this role, and a lot of that has to do with the surrounding cast. Recent silver screen staple Joel Edgerton nearly steals the show in most of their scenes together as soon-to-be-disgraced FBI agent John Connolly, but even the movie's supporting characters come fully stocked (you know a good cast has been assembled when Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Sarsgaard get limited screen time, but impress during every second of it).
If only the story were a bit better. On the surface, Black Mass has all the trappings of a modern day Martin Scorsese masterpiece, complete with brutal killings, a tough setting (South Boston) and a storyline about bringing people to justice, while also touching on subjects related to power, loyalty and family, but Black Mass never quite connects in the way similar crime dramas do.
Part of that has to do with its length. Black Mass is only two hours long, but it covers multiple decades during that time, charting Bulger's early beginnings as a two-bit gangster in the '70s, citywide crime kingpin in the '80s and fugitive in the '90s, all the way up to his ultimate arrest in 2011. Somewhere in the middle — during a weird real-life subplot set in Florida and involving America's strange, short-lived fascination with jai alai — the film starts to fall a bit flat, and no brutal, cold-blooded killing can bring it back to life. Instead, the film merely plods along, piecing together the occasional crime and conspiracy and never quite recapturing the captivating essence of its steady climb.
As is often the case with art that imitates life too closely, those who've read one of countless books on the crime lord, or seen the 2014 documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger won't find anything new here, and most of the cast members' New England accents are downright annoying. Black Mass is a good movie for those interested in the mafia and its politics, but it's hard not to feel like an all-star cast was assembled for a pretty mediocre story, and one that's been done to death in the media already.