What It’s About
An unholy alliance between one of the most notorious gangsters in modern times and an FBI agent is explored in “Black Mass,” an intriguing but mostly uninspired stock wiseguys story.
Based on the true story of mobster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who were childhood pals from a rough neighborhood in South Boston, the movie focuses on an unfettered crime wave and corruption. A high body count, ruined relationships and jail time result.
In 1975, the ambitious Connolly reached out to the intimidating thug Bulger in order to nab the Italian Mafia, who controlled the North End of Boston.
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Bulger rationalized that if he helped the FBI, his Winter Hill Gang could build up their territory. Being an informant worked in his favor, and he became the untouchable godfather of the Irish mob.
Whenever the FBI superiors were skeptical about Bulger’s value, Connolly masterfully manipulated them, thus protecting the kingpin.
Connolly is in way over his head, but it’s too late when he finally realizes it.
But what are his motives? Misguided loyalty to a ruthless psychotic weasel? Bulger is a sadistic career criminal whose one redeeming quality is that he loves his family.
The brother ties are a stunner — Whitey’s younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a revered state senator, and father of nine.
While the Boston accents are all over the place, the sprawling cast is earnest enough about authentic portrayals of henchman and law enforcers.
Depp, who early on showed us a mesmerizing range, had become mired in cartoonish characters and bad movies (such as last year’s unwatchable “Transcendence”), so he needed a comeback.
This role isn’t Oscar-worthy, but he is convincing as a cruel, heartless monster who can make your blood run cold with a mere menacing look.
However, the jarring physical transformation takes some getting used to, and the showy makeup is often more distracting than effective. With a permanent scowl and creepy vibe, the guy appears devoid of charm. Was he appealing in any way?
Dakota Johnson (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and Julianne Nicholson (“August: Osage County”) are strong in small significant other roles.
Peter Sarsgaard (“Flight Plan”) impresses as coked-out hoodlum, and Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad”) and Rory Cochrane (“Argo”) are impressive, too, as Whitey underlings.
How this blemish to big-time law and order happened is a fascinating story, only it was much better handled in “The Departed.”
Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) does pack much information here, but there is little finesse — the violence is too dark, gruesome and drawn out. A strangulation scene is excruciating, as is the torture of an insider.
What Doesn’t Work
When the heat is on, the story quickly wraps up. Whitey became a fugitive in 1994 and wasn’t caught until 2011 -- now that would have been compelling, instead of a brief epilogue. He was second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.
The movie is marred by pacing issues, and becomes tedious midway, as the bloodbaths escalate.
While serviceable, “Black Mass” could have been much better, and that’s disappointing.
2 1/4 stars out of 4
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, David Harbour, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Juno Temple.
Rated: R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use.