BLACK MASS (USA/UK/15A/122mins)
Directed by Scott Cooper. Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons.
THE PLOT: We open on former members of Boston crime boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s notorious South Boston-ruling Winter Hill Gang confessing all to their captors, their stories launching the flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s – and a spectacular rise and fall. We open on Bulger’s Irish-American operation competing with their Italian-American counterparts, a murder lighting the spark just as the crime boss’ old childhood friend, John Connolly (Edgerton), approaches him with an FBI offer that’s hard to refuse. In return for information on how to bust the Italian-American mafia in South Boston, Whitey and his gang will get protection. And so it goes, and goes, until the inevitable greed and sense of entitlement on both sides of the law starts to put a strain on all those within a 50-mile radius. The fact that Bulger’s brother (Cumberbatch) is a state senator.
THE VERDICT: With his blockbuster days now firmly behind him – how many flops has it been now? – Johnny Depp wisely retreats to his old character actor roots with ‘Black Mass’. Looking far more like Hunter S. Thompson – especially the Garry Trudeau version – than Boston baddie Smiley Bolger, Depp nonetheless delivers here. And the Elvis effect works in his favour. The complexities of a man who was both a vicious thug and a Robin Hood suits our leading man’s current limbo state off-screen, Depp caught between the aftermath of over-exposure and bad blockbusters, and the uncertainty that he will ever be able to reclaim that hard-earned credibility the actor had built over twenty years. Before shaking hands with Jerry Bruckheimer.
The fact that Depp is playing a truly fascinating character here helps, Bolger being one of those American anti-heroes who, despite living a life of crime and brutal violence, ended up being a cool t-shirt.
Directed by Scott Cooper – who gave us the one trick pony that was ‘Crazy Heart’ – Black Mass hits all the expected notes, the American true-life gangster pic being pretty much a solid gold blueprint at this point. The fashion, the cars, the soundtrack, the grey-haired mum, the hurt hottie girlfriend, and so on. Nothing wrong with a good formula, of course, and everyone here plays to their strengths, especially Joel Edgerton as Whitey’s good-cop-goes-bad-cop partner-in-crime, John Connolly. The South Boston accents all suck though.
RATING: 3/5
Review by Paul Byrne

Black Mass
Review by Paul Byrne
3.0Formulaic but strong
  • filmbuff2011

    In the case of Scott Cooper’s new film Black Mass, the title is taken from the book it’s based on – Black Mass: The True Story Of An Unholy Alliance Between The FBI And The Irish Mob, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. But there’s also something shifty and devilish about Johnny Depp’s performance, his best in years. It’s told in flashback to an FBI agent by a number of hardened South Boston criminals including Kevin (Jesse Plemons) and Steve (Rory Cochrane), who are members of the Winter Hill gang. In the 1970s, The head of this viper is the notorious Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp), who terrorised Southie through racketeering and murder. He also engaged in terrorism, by supplying the IRA with weapons… while also helping little old ladies with their shopping. He has a younger brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the State Senate who turns a blind eye to his activities. It’s at this point that he’s approached by John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend and fellow Southie who now works for the FBI. John has a proposition for Jimmy: turn informant for the FBI and spill the beans on the activities of rival Italian gangs in North Boston who are encroaching on Jimmy’s turf. Jimmy hesitantly accepts, but makes it clear that he’s no rat. If there’s one thing he hates, it’s a rat. Over the next 10 years, the uneasy alliance between the FBI and the Winter Hill gang and between Jimmy and John will be put under immense pressure, as they both sink deeper and deeper together. How deep can they go before it all blows up in their faces? Following on from his first two features, Crazy Heart and Out Of The Furnace, Cooper shows a growing degree of ambition and confidence with Black Mass. It’s an engrossing true crime story that certainly proves the theory that truth is stranger than fiction. Bulger was a ruthless killer who wouldn’t hesitate in ending another person’s life. Yet, he maintained an air of respectability about him that made him an admired figure on his turf. No wonder Martin Scorsese based the Jack Nicholson character in The Departed on him. After a string of autopilot performances which saw him plumb new depths of eccentric characterisation (e.g. Mortdecai), it’s good to see Depp back in the types of roles that best suit him. There’s a shade of Donnie Brasco here, but on a more controlled level. His immersion into the character of Bulger, his mannerisms and slow, deliberate way of talking, holds the screen throughout. A strong supporting cast including Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Corey Stoll and Dakota Johnson all do good work in smaller, but still important roles. Shot in and around South Boston and actual murder sites, there’s an attention to detail here that makes it all the more authentic. As the lead characters sink deeper into this unholy alliance, you have to wonder: whose playing who here – and to what end? Black Mass is a probing insight into the mind of a dangerous criminal who is now serving the rest of his life behind bars. Where he belongs. ****

  • emerb

    Directed by Scott Cooper, “Black Mass” is a thrilling crime drama which chronicles the exploits of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Based on a book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, it deftly traces the rise of Bulger’s so-called Winter Hill Gang. Bulger was a notorious crime lord who ruled South Boston from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, until the feds closed in on his operation and finally captured him in 2011. The Irish mobster had been hiding in plain sight since 1994. Now 86, he is in prison, found guilty of 11 of the 19 murders with which he’d been charged. The film sees Johnny Depp play the notorious crime Lord and he gives his finest performance in years. It’s refreshing to see him comfortable playing a more mature part than his usual fantasy characters like Captain Jack Sparrow or the Mad Hatter. “Black Mass” will certainly help to relaunch his career after a series of flops such as “Transcendence” and “Mortdecai”.

    Cooper frames the action around a series of interrogation-room testimonies by men who turn out to be accomplices of the crime lord at the centre of the story: James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp), who when we pick up the action years earlier, in 1975, is a small-time mobster whose Winter Hill gang works various old-school rackets in Boston’s working-class Southside. It’s here that John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a South Boston native who is working on a task force assigned with cleaning up the city enters the scene. He is a childhood friend of Whitey’s younger brother (and current political heavyweight) Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch). Now an ambitious but not overly bright FBI agent, Connolly proposes an alliance whereby Bulger becomes an informant. In return for virtual immunity from prosecution, Bulger will give Connolly valuable “intel” on the Italians in the north. This “mutually beneficial” relationship goes well until Bulger grasps too much power and Connolly’s dealings at the FBI catch the interest of assistant U.S. attorney Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll). The entire deal fails spectacularly when Whitey becomes the biggest boss in all of Boston and openly defies law enforcement with brazen criminal acts of extortion, drug dealing and murder. Arguably, the real theme of the story is not so much that of a crime boss’s rise and fall as a morally weak cop’s admiration of the man he’s supposed to be investigating and his twisted childhood loyalty to his pal who once ruled the schoolyard.

    The acting in this film is top-notch. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the psychopathic Whitey Bulger reminds us that when he commits and becomes properly motivated, Depp can do very impressive work. This is arguably his most visceral and evil role to date. He totally owns the character and his acting is what gives Bulger a real screen presence – riveting, scary and intense. Depp creates a monster who embodies pure, terrifying malevolence and gives us more than a few chillingly effective scenes. While there is an attempt to humanize the man – he plays cards with his dear old mother, dotes on his son, takes care of lifelong pals and the good people of the neighbourhood, there is no doubting that he is nothing more than a neurotic sociopath and ruthless killer who floods schools with drugs and routinely murders enemies and any rats or informers found to be disloyal. Depp’s confident performance is aided by a series of strong acting turns, particularly from Joel Edgerton as the crime king’s fellow “Southie” resident – an ethically questionable FBI contact who flirts dangerously with the wrong side of the law. He’s the character who is developed the most, and Edgerton takes us through his transformation from a self-assured, tough investigator to an arrogant man who thinks he’s untouchable and wants nothing more than to advance his own career, even if this means promoting a gangster, notorious for introducing children in Boston to drugs. Mainly known for indie roles, Edgerton could be in for a few well-deserved award nods here. The first-rate cast also includes Peter Sarsgaard in the villainous role of Brian Halloran, a Bulger associate and Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s FBI boss, frustrated by the hands-off policy towards Bulger. Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson do fine work in small roles as spouses in hopelessly doomed relationships. With a lot less screen time, Cumberbatch’s character, Billy Bulger, a powerful state senator, acts as an ambiguous presence in the background. He never allows himself to be tainted by association, yet in his own smooth way he is arguably every bit as manipulative as his big brother.

    “Black Mass” is a well-executed, well-acted and well-directed extraordinary crime story which provides solid entertainment. The very idea that a psychopathic killer like Bulger could exist comfortably in a major city for years—going to prison and then getting out and starting all over again with drugs, murders and violence on the streets of South Boston seems utterly unreal. While on the surface, it is a relatively straightforward telling of Whitey’s rise to power, his precarious alliance with a childhood friend who had become an FBI agent and the inevitable unraveling of his empire, many other themes are touched on – bonds of friendship, loyalty, greed, ambition and the obsession with power and control. On many levels, this is a film well worth seeing.

  • Randy

    Sound film with very unlikable characters. There are some good scenes where Depp shows a glimpse of his gravitas, but the overall experience is rather average.