Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage are a lot alike. They started out small, went on to do various character roles, then went bigger with blockbusters and played wackier characters, then kinda took a downturn and suffered for it, and as Cinema Snob said, they have “nightmares of Jerry Bruckheimer”. While Nicolas Cage has pretty much sunken into direct-to-video trash yet could still make a comeback (please do great in Snowden, Cage), at least Johnny Depp is still okay. Sure, he started 2015 with crap like Mortdecai, been playing wacky characters for too long, but he finished 2015 strong playing Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, and it’s a shame he didn’t get nominated for an Oscar doing it (he would’ve lost to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant anyway; shut up Leo will win it this time lol).While I don’t know much about Whitey Bulger’s story (only the gist of it), how much this movie is true to it, or how faithful it is to the book it’s based on, I do know that The Departed did take inspiration from him for Jack Nicholson’s character (as well the film Infernal Affairs that it was based on), and whatever info I could find on him. I’ll just judge the movie on its own merits, which are pretty good.
One criticism I can give this movie is that it doesn’t really break new ground into the true crime, gangster, or any genre of film related to those things. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of crime films, true and fictional. The problem with this movie is that it just does a typical “rise and fall” type of story of this one guy who started out small-time, became a fearsome guy, and then things fall apart and he gets arrested. And then there are some characters that just come and go, not really explored, but I guess that comes to be expected with an ensemble. However, while other crime films like The Godfather and Scarface had various characters, they did manage to take their time with them while managing to tell a complete story. Black Mass does have a beginning, middle, and end, but the only characters with any clear focus was on Whitey, Connolly, and Whitey’s brother Billy (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), while other actors like Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, and Jesse Plemons do great performances, but their characters come and go, some do pretty good Boston accents I guess, and only serve to advance the plot and little else.
Some things are pretty interesting, like Bulger’s friend John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton), covering for him while also using him to further advance himself in the FBI, making the “alliance” between them all the more shadier and questionable. The interviews with various members of Whitey’s gang reflecting on their time with Whitey to the police are cool too, how they’re juxtaposed with the story as it’s happening. As for Depp himself, he is phenomenal. Yes, there are the occasional “gangster outbursts” where he either yells, kills someone for whatever reason he thinks justifies it, or just seems so intense, yet it’s not just that. As Whitey Bulger, Johnny Depp has never been more menacing. There is such an underlying sense of menace through his gruff demeanor, raspy voice with Boston accent, and dry delivery. Let’s not forget the makeup either. Depp is already in his fifties, but playing Whitey Bulger has given him his scariest look yet, and that’s saying something given all the weird-looking characters he’s played. The eyes, wrinkles, and hair make him look like Palpatine and all the more scarier for it. And his laughter. Whoo boy, did that give me chills. Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch are interesting in how their characters try to counsel, control, monitor, or just straight up distance themselves yet maintaining some connection to him, in a way of seeing the different sides to Bulger’s life and how he goes about doing his business, but he’s also his own man that don’t answer to no one and no one messes with him. He manages to bring to life this tale of the most notorious gangster in U.S. history, one who had an “alliance” with the FBI and took advantage of it no less, through all of this and more.
Black Mass is an okay movie. It doesn’t exactly do anything new, but it’s well-acted, has a slow but decent pace, good direction by Scott Cooper, and it knows what kind of story it wants to tell. With “big” actors like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Depp, and others like them now starting to get into more tighter, character-focused roles after doing so many “big” movies, hopefully there’ll be more like this from them in the future.