It’s easy to see why Johnny Depp would be seduced to play one of America’s most notorious criminals, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Not only does it give him the chance to play behind a mask of bad hair, bad teeth and contact lenses once again; but Bulger’s psychopathic personality gives the actor a chance to remind us that he can act.
In Scott Copper’s Black Mass, which charts the rise of ‘Whitey’ from crook to kingpin in South Boston, Depp is trying really, really hard to impress. He throws tables, kicks chairs, growls and grimaces like the terrifying, predatory animal his character is. It’s ‘real’ acting which marks a return to form for the actor, whose recent roles have been less than impressive.
Yet, Depp isn’t the star of the show here. He’s surrounded by a supporting cast of talent that often steal the spotlight from the lead actor. Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Peter Sarsgaard, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dakota Johnson all put in brilliantly subtle performances when compared to Depp’s Bulger.
It’s Joel Edgerton who is the real highlight of the film though, mainly because he plays the most interesting character; the duplicitous John Connolly who worked for the FBI and formed an ‘alliance’ with Bulger at the same time. Black Mass may be marketed as the story of the criminal, but for a lot of the time it feels more about Connolly. It’s in these moments where the film works best.
Away from the performances though, Black Mass has very little to offer and feels like a gangster biopic going through the motions. Scott Copper, whose previous Out of the Furnace pulled a massive visual and emotional punch, feels like he’s on autopilot. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with his directing style in this instance, there’s nothing particularly memorable about it either.
And that in itself sums up Black Mass perfectly. There is nothing wrong with it. It does what it’s supposed to. It has great turns from a super-talented cast, has some great costumes and it passes the time with little consequence. However, it is far from memorable and does nothing we haven’t already seen done before, and done better at that, by the likes of Scorsese, De Palma and Coppola. It’s enjoyable enough whilst it’s there, but Goodfellas this isn’t.
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