After the misfire that was ‘The Lone Ranger’ and the disaster that was ‘Mortdecai’ (not to mention an uncredited cameo in the vile ‘Tusk’) Johnny Depp’s clout as a leading man has been in serious decline as of late, so a film like ‘Black Mass’ couldn’t come soon enough. Likely to land Depp in serious contention come award season, his role as Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, a figure who at one point was second to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI’s most wanted list, is one of the great cinematic turnarounds of the last few years.
Though it’s easy to argue that his use of prosthetics is doing the brunt of the work – a thinning hair piece, rotting teeth, pale blue eyes – Depp still injects a subtle terror to the character of Bulger, creating an enigmatic yet malevolent nightmarish figure in the process. The film itself begins in 1975 when Bulger was in control of nearly all organised crime within South Boston, working alongside right-hand Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), hitman Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown), and newcomer Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons). As Bulger’s hold over South Boston comes under threat from the Angiulo Brothers, who murder one of Bulger’s men, he reluctantly agrees to become an informant for the FBI, much to the dismay of his senator brother William (Benedict Cumberbatch). The driving force behind this is advancing FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a Boston native and long-time friend of Bulger, who ultimately acts as a cover for Bulger to continue criminal activity.
As the film rolls over its 120 minute runtime, it still can’t help but feel like only a part of this story is being told; especially when you take in to consideration the events that took place after this film ends. And as stellar as the likes of Depp, Edgerton (slightly over-doing the Boston accent though), and Cochrane are, there’s such a plethora of talent involved that it’s hard for everyone to shine through, though they all do their best. Peter Saarsgaard turns in a memorable spot as a coked-up killer who begs for police protection following a snitching interrogation, Julianne Nicholson holds her own as Edgerton’s disapproving wife (an under-played confrontation scene between herself and Depp proves one of the film’s most electric) and Dakota Johnson, though underused, leaves an impression as the mother of Bulger’s ill-fated child.
Whilst this may not be the best film that the Whitey Bulger story deserves, ‘Black Mass’ still delivers as entertainment within the mobster genre, just be prepared for an overuse of profanity and brutality, and, if you take away nothing else, it’s proof that Johnny Depp can still disappear into his characters and deliver a performance worthy of praise.
My rating: 3.5/5
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, Peter Saarsgaard, Corey Stoll
Classification: MA15+ (Strong Violence and Coarse Language)
Review by Peter Gray