After years spent hiding behind hair and make up taking on silly roles Johnny Depp hides behind some hair and make up once again, this time however to take on the role of notorious FBI most wanted criminal James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass.
Lauded by many as Depp’s comeback Black Mass is the story of Jimmy Bulger- the south Boston criminal who worked with the FBI to bring down the mafia, strengthening his own grip on the underworld in the process. Bulger, the older brother of Billy Bulger, a senator spent the 1970’s and 80’s working alongside FBI agent and childhood friend John Connolly, played here by Joel Edgerton.
It’s no great secret that Depp’s career has been in need of a Matthew McConaughey style renaissance, he has spent the 21st thus far pratting around in silly costumes playing over the top characters. Looking back at the history of cinema a lot of actors have cemented their status as one of the best playing gangsters- De Niro, Nicholson, Pacino, Brando, the list goes on, so it seemed like a smart move for the man who was at point picked as one of the best actors of his generation. However playing a gangster requires a lot more than looking menacing, knocking a few people about and generally just being an all around psychopath. Now on the face of it Black Mass has a whole load of potential, an actor who we all know can be brilliant playing one of the most notorious criminals in American history. Unfortunately the whole film feels like a hugely missed opportunity thanks to a rather plodding pace and a hollow script.
The film has all the ingredients needed for a successful gangster movie but like the equally disappointing Legend , which come a few months earlier the film doesn’t have an awful lot to say about it’s central character. Sure we see him walk an old lady down the street and we see him play some cards with his mom but the film offers no real insight into his character being a few cliches about gangsters being nice men from tough circumstances. The Bulger we see is completely without motive, he doesn’t appear to be motivated by money and whilst the film drills home the idea of loyalty and respect he doesn’t particularly appeal to be loyal to anybody. Bulger starts the film as an unhinged psychopath and he finishes the movie in the exact same way- it is Edgerton’s Connolly who really undergoes changes here and if director Scott Cooper had his wits about him he would have focused on him instead of spending the whole time focusing on a lunatic. The film also never really focuses on the fact that Bulger and his brother live polar opposite lives, something that would have made for interesting character analysis. It also means we would have got to spend more time with Benedict Cumberbatch, who once you get over hearing that accent come out of his mouth is a delight to spend time with.
For all the film’s structural problems Depp does give his finest performance in years and whilst at times it does border on being a little too much he manages to sustain an eerie presence throughout. Edgerton is also on fine form here and both of them will likely gain themselves some awards recognition, which you can’t but feel s exactly what they set out to do, especially Depp.
Black Mass feels like a missed opportunity. Those who think it is a turning point for Depp only have to look and see that he is set to reprise his roles as Jack Sparrow and The Mad Hatter to realise that this is more an anomaly than a career change. Structural issues and a severely unoriginal script makes for tedious viewing, despite the quality of some of the performances. You want a decent Boston based gangster thriller? Dig out The Departed.