Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott,
Director Scott Cooper certainly hit the ground running with his directorial debut “Crazy Heart” back in 2009 earning lead actor Jeff Bridges an Academy Award. His sophomore feature “Into the Furnace” in 2013 was hyped as an awards vehicle for lead Christian Bale, but that didn’t pan out so well after people saw the film. Sticking with big name leading actors, Cooper brings to life the true story of infamous crime boss Whitey Bulger starring Johnny Depp.
It’s been a while since Depp had a hit, and before he sets sail again for Disney, “Black Mass” is being hyped as an award performance, which unfortunately it is not. There are so many better Boston area crime thrillers (“Mystic River”, “Gone Baby Gone”) that have certainly borrowed or benefited from the Whitey Bulger legend that when his own sorry finally gets the Hollywood treatment it feels redundant.
In 1975, James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) and the Winter Hill Boys were just small time criminals. They killed more of their own, or “rats”, than anyone else. Growing up in South Boston together, John Connelly (Edgerton) makes a deal with his former childhood playmate Jim; inform on the North Side gang and the feds will turn a blind eye. For years Connelly and Bulger helped each other out, which made both of them very rich. “Its business,” he said, differentiating between what he did and a “rat”. 1985 rolls around, a new federal prosecutor (Stoll) comes in to clear out the mess and aversion Connelly has been selling for years. “Just like on the playground, it wasn’t easy to tell who was on which side”.
Hyped as an award performance, which unfortunately it is not.
“Black Mass” seems to think that each murder shown on screen is why audiences bought a ticket. There are a handful of violent scenes, sprinkled throughout the movie, but the pace seems to always build towards these lackluster killings (who is next). The duel narrative between Whitey and Connelly causes two problems. One, they are both bad guys, leaving the audience with no character to really support or root for. Two, they are both the wrong characters heap the narrative on.
The script wants to divulge the history gained from Winter Hill Boys turned informants, that’s where the story begins, yet the perspective shifts between bad guys only reminding us periodically we are getting this information through testimony. We quickly learn that being in a quiet empty room, or secluded location, means a murder is about to happen so the suspense is removed.
“Mystic River” began with a scene from the past to explain why the characters in that story were on their criminal path, this film just talks about this childhood friendship that we never see or understand. “Black Mass” relies heavily on the public’s love for Johnny Depp. Sure, this is better than the barrage of crap he has put out in the past few years like “Transcendence”, “The Rum Diaries”, and last year’s “Mordecai”. Yet this is the fourth time Depp has played a criminal, the most recent in “Public Enemies”. Edgerton (“The Gift”) is actually the more impressive performer here as a character straddling a fence. Every time we see one of the heavy hitting supporting actors the picture finds new wind, Cumberbatch is the stand out as Whitey’s brother. In the end I think its Cooper’s misguided direction of this fascinating story that makes it so mundane to watch.
Never finds fresh ground in the crime genre.