"Just sayin' gets people sent away. Just sayin' got me a 9 year stretch in Alcatraz. So, just sayin' can get you buried real quick."It would be easy to open this review with a small recap on Johnny Depp’s recent career, and that is exactly what I shall do (I literally just wrote it would be easy to do such a thing, why wouldn’t I?). Having been starring in several indie pictures throughout the 90s and then being sucked into a seamless mass of studio films in the 21th century (not all of these are terrible but ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Mortdecai’ and whichever ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ that wasn’t the first one) his career may be in need of some sort of magnum opus, a reach back to the pure acting ability to prove to the world he van transform himself into more than just a quirky weirdo who makes funny gestures. Enter ‘Black Mass’.
Following a pivotal moment in the career of notorious gangster Whitey Bulger (Depp) as he is approached by an FBI agent called John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who wants to recruit him as an informer in exchange for leniency on his own crimes, distilling the border between police and criminals.
I can immediately say that Johnny Depp has proved that he still has what it takes to be a serious actor. Undoubtedly many of you will have seen that terrifying teaser trailer in which Depp goes into a fear inducing monologue on par with Joe Pesci’s ‘funny how?’ speech from ‘Goodfellas’. That is just one of several scenes in which Depp stretches his abilities to go far beyond what we have seen of them in recent years. This performance ranges from the unnerving, to the ruthless and sometimes darkly comical. With all of the prosthetics Depp can sink into this role, but I would not say he disappears into it, I never quite forgot that I was watching a performance. Though it is still magnificent he appears to be someone that is playing Whitey Bulger, not someone who is Bulger.
The supporting cast around him are all on top form, they all succeed in raising multiple questions on morality and the lines between good and evil and it is all deeply impressive, or would be had ‘Sicario’ not already exploited that theme to what was, in my opinion, a deeper extent. But such a criticism is highly unfair to ‘Black Mass’ as it is not in direct competition with another film and should not be judged based purely on comparison to others. However I would say that I feel like I have seen a majority of this film before.
The reason being that unless it is paying some sort of homage to classic gangster films ‘Black Mass does not quite stand apart from other films of the genre. It feels over familiar in parts and too predictable. Being based on a true story I can hardly criticise the plot but maybe a more interesting way of telling that story would have been necessary. It does manage to inject some new energy into the classic genre and put a somewhat unique spin on it at times, but mostly it resembles a lot of other crime films I have already seen. Though director Scott Cooper does at least avoid the imitation trick as there is no showy camerawork that you would find in a Scorsese or Coppola picture, just setting a tone and maintaining it for the whole movie.
But back to that supporting cast (I deviated there slightly). Bulger’s brother played by Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderfully counterintuitive compass to the gangster, warning him of the dangers of the game he is playing with both sides of the law. His brother is also a senator, and combine that with his status as an informer for the FBI, Cumberbatch and Edgerton are essentially shields for Bulger. They regret their own actions but are duty bound to protect the criminal, by blood or by profession and both convey that perfectly.
‘Black Mass’ is elevated to new heights by the direction, performances and themes rather than its script, dialogue and emotions. So it may be superficially magnificent, but ultimately a little hollow.