Welcome back, Johnny Depp. It has been a very, very long time.
“Black Mass” stars Depp as real-life mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, and chronicles his reign as the crime boss of Boston in the 70’s and 80’s, all while an undercover informant for the FBI. Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch are just two of the dozen big names that co-star as Scott Cooper directs.
They often say truth is stranger than fiction, and that is true with the Whitey Bulger story. A career criminal who tricked the FBI to arrest his enemies all while having a brother who is a state senator; Hollywood couldn’t come up with that on their own.
Like I said, it has been a while since we have seen Johnny Depp play a character we cared about in a movie that we liked. His last Oscar nomination was in 2008 for “Sweeney Todd,” and this year’s “Mortdecai” may have been the final straw, with many calling it the worst film and performance of his career. However ever since the first image of Depp as Bulger was released many have been hoping that “Black Mass” would be the shot of energy Depp’s career desperately needed, and thankfully (for both us and Depp) he turns in a near-career best performance.
Johnny Depp loves his makeup, that is no secret, and he disappears behind the wrinkles and black eyes of Whitey Bulger. Much like Jack Nicholson in “The Departed” (whose character was based off Bulger), Depp becomes more and more depraved and sadistic as the film goes on, and when the climax comes you are not sure what he is capable or willing to do.
The violence in “Black Mass” is like that of “Goodfellas”: bloody but swift. There are several well-crafted execution scenes however the most intense sequences are ones where Depp is just starring down someone from across a table not saying a word.
Speaking of “Goodfellas,” that leads me into the film’s flaws. It tries very hard to take from other gangster films, which more often than not makes us compare the film we’re watching to classic movies, and obviously it isn’t going to hold a candle to the greats. There is even a scene that tries to embody the same feel as the “funny how?” sequence from “Goodfellas,” and while it works in the moment, once it passes you realize it doesn’t hold the same weight as that Joe Pesci scene.
The payoff of the film also leaves more to be desired. The film goes from a guy getting taken out by Bulger and his crew in one scene to everything starting to get wrapped up in the next. In fact most of the film feels as if the filmmakers assume you know the Whitey Bulger story, and so it takes little time to introduce backstories, which makes us watch characters that feel more expendable than engaging (outside Depp and Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent).
Still, narrative flaws aside, there are several brilliant scenes sprinkled throughout “Black Mass,” and one in particular that may be remembered for a while. It is fantastically refreshing to see Depp return to a serious role, and I’m sure he will get some serious consideration come Oscar season. As a film, “Black Mass” is solid, but you’re going to see for Depp’s chilling performance, and it is what you will walk out remembering most.
Critics Rating: 7/10