Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is a well made film that trots out all the traditional gangster tropes. There’s little new on display here and if you’ve seen any Martin Scorsese gangster film then you won’t be surprised how things go down. The main selling point here is Johnny Depp’s performance as Boston gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. It’s the best Depp performance in years and he looks unrecognisable, with receding hairline and piercing blue eyes. However, the paint by numbers narrative fails to deliver on the promise of Depp’s work.
This Boston based true story begins in 1975 when Bulger, a brutal killer and gangster makes a pact to trade information with his childhood friend turned FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). The law effectively turns a blind eye to his crimes and he’s able to build a powerful empire as the FBI brings down his opponents. However, Bulger’s world begins to crumble and he’s eventually forced to flee Boston as one of the most wanted men in the US.
Scott Copper stacks Black Mass with an impressive line-up of actors that includes Benedict Cumberbacth, Kevin Bacon, Peter Skarsgaard, Dakota Johnson and Jesse Plemons but there’s just too much to cover in the film’s 2 hour running time. At times it feels like you’re watching a highlight reel rather than a finished film and you get the impression that this would have worked better as a three hour epic or maybe even a mini-series. This could have been a sprawling Sidney Lumet style crime drama but this superficial tale just doesn’t have the detail that makes Lumet’s films so rich.
Johnny Depp is the big draw here, but his good work is undone by a generic gangster narrative. It might be based on one of America’s great crime stories but that doesn’t stop it from feeling derivative with the ‘two friends on either side of the law’ device feeling very worn out at this stage in the game.
If you’re in the mood for a gangster movie but can’t face The Departed or Donnie Brasco again, then Black Mass is the movie for you. It’s well presented but it just doesn’t feel fresh- which is a real shame.
The extras for Black Mass are actually pretty good. Black Mass: Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime is a solid look behind the movie, while Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger shows how Depp transformed into Boston’s infamous gangster. The best of the bunch is The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger, an hour long documentary looking at the real-life case – it might even be better than the movie.