MOVIE REVIEW: Black Mass
"BLACK MASS"-- 3 STARS
Not to put on the school teacher hat, but let's pose a few questions and directions. Raise your hand if Johnny Depp has let you down since 2003 when he hit the big time playing Captain Jack Sparrow and became a caricature instead of an actor? Alright. That's most of you. Now, how many times did he let you down? Twice? Five times? More than five? Wow. That's still a lot of hands. Last question, how many of you miss Johnny Depp, The Actor who made us marvel as a serious performer back in films like "Blow" and "Donnie Brasco" Yup, that's everyone.
Rest assured, class, "Black Mass" is here. For the first time since 2009's "Public Enemies" (and before that "Finding Neverland" in 2004), we have been graced with a rare dynamite display from Johnny Depp, The Actor. One good film like "Black Mass" sure doesn't mean that version of Johnny Depp is truly back and here to stay, especially in the same calendar year as "Mordecai" and with the twin sequels of "Alice Through the Looking Glass" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" coming in 2016 and 2017. Still, for at least two hours, it's awfully nice to stare in impressive awe at Johnny Depp without having to roll our eyes or squint.
"Black Mass" follows the peak years of James "Whitey" Bulger, the leader of the Winter Hill Gang and the most notorious criminal in the history of South Boston. Exuding intensity through impressive makeup, large sunglasses, and a Southie accent, Johnny Depp plays the renowned gangster with a rattlesnake's coil and venom. The film is directed by Scott Cooper, steward of the blue collar tales of "Crazy Heart" and "Into the Furnace." It is based on the 2001 non-fiction book "Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance between the FBI and the Irish Mob."
By the time this film starts its story, Bulger had already become a career criminal and former inmate of Alcatraz. His younger brother was William "Billy" Bulger (Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch), a prominent member of the Massachusetts State Senate. Whitey's Irish-flavored Winter Hill Gang has been embroiled in an on-and-off-again turf war with the Patriarca family of the Italian Mafia. In 1974, Bulger was approached by FBI Special Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton of "The Gift" and "Warrior") to become an informant to the agency to stomp out the Patriarca Mafia as a way of avoiding more federal prison time. The wheeling-and-dealing Connolly was a Southie kid himself and former schoolmate that grew up with Whitey's family. The under-the-table agreement is as long as Whitey can deliver details that prosecute and oust the Italians, John can make sure the FBI turns its eyes away from Whitey's activities.
With an FBI agent in his pocket and a State Senator at the family dinner table acting as a pair of shields, Whitey becomes virtually unchallenged and untouchable to rule South Boston through the 1970's and 1980's. He and his top crew of right-hand man Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), hitman Johnny Martarano (W. Earl Brown), and young muscle Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) put truth in the expression "get away with murder" multiple times and with no threat of consequences. Meanwhile, Connolly's success against the Mafia with Whitey's information ascends him and his cockiness up the FBI ranks, much to the chagrin of his immediate superior Charles Maguire (Kevin Bacon).
"Black Mass" is slow and methodical to outline the unsavory nature of Whitey's malice and the moral-eroding ramifications of Connolly's deal with the devil. Cooper's film limits itself to these FBI informant years of Bulger and Connolly and weaves in a little bit of background family life, in the form of Whitey's companion Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson of "Fifty Shades of Grey") and John's wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson of "August: Osage County"). To no surprise, the 70's/80's detail and tone is shaded and fitting of the subject matter. Give "Moonrise Kingdom" costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone an Oscar nomination already for her period-perfect rags. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi ("The Grey") makes smooth choices drifting or lingering the camera to change the proximity of the violence to suit the scene. Bombastic electronic composer Junkie XL ("Mad Max: Fury Road") dials it down for his subtlest film score to date.
For many lesser informed moviegoers, "Black Mass" is going to feel like a Scorsese knockoff between the apt comparisons to "The Departed" and "Goodfellas." There's some truth to that artistically, but it's more out of fiction outshining the true story. After all, Jack Nicholson's fictional Boston mobster Frank Costello in "The Departed" was inspired by Whitey Bulger. Nicholson may have overacted to create that classic, but it is Depp as the real thing that elevates the stereotype of to sear a greater and more striking impression. Joel Edgerton is equally solid as Connolly and the two give the film an interesting dichotomy of who's really more wrong. The drop off from them is significant with the rest of the ensemble. Benedict Cumberbatch's uneasy Boston accent takes the air out of his character's clout. Kevin Bacon is a blip on the screen, and when Corey Stoll replaces him as the lead law dog with a bigger bite, it's too late in the film.
The full Whitey Bulger story is too big for any film. There is enough intrigue and history for two films with Whitey's sixteen years as a globe-trotting man-on-the-run fleeing Boston to avoid arrest in 1994 before his eventual 2011 arrest. Bulger spent twelve of those sixteen years on the FBI's famed "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" list and was featured on John Walsh's "America's Most Wanted" TV show sixteen times. His $2 million reward was second most in history, after Osama bin Laden.
As solidly made as the film is, the been-there-done-that Scorsese comparisons and the general slowness of "Black Mass" will make one wonder if Cooper and his screenwriters, Jez Butterworth ("Get On Up," "Edge or Tomorrow") and Mark Mallouk, picked the right half of the Bulger story for the big screen. The attempt must have been there because "American Sniper" star Sienna Miller was cast as Catherine Grieg, Bulger's girlfriend on the lam, only to find her scenes on the cutting room floor. That might have been something new and interesting to see instead of another mob movie on the gritty city streets. "Black Mass" ranks as a good, but not great, entry in the well-worn genre.
LESSON #1: PLAYING COPS AND ROBBERS IN REAL LIFE-- The story of Whitey Bulger and John Connolly does not approach the Bellerophon and Chimera as a classicly linked hero and villain story. The two grew up in the same neighborhood with the same values and toughness. One chose the law and the other chose crime early on. Youth turned into adulthood and their childhood rivalry of playing games turns into a chess game with peoples' lives in the balance as adults. The mutual understanding between the two of their place and roles in this game is fascinating.
LESSON #2: WHEN MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL RELATIONSHIPS DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD-- When you give loyalty, you get loyalty. That's the basic boundary of the agreement between Bulger and Connolly. However, this mutually beneficial relationship only ends up enabling each side to outside the law and without reproach. Instead of flying more straight and narrow, Bulger is able to grow his criminal control unchecked. Connolly gets top-notch collars he doesn't earn and ends up allowing Bulger's empire to become greater than the Mafia influence they took down together. Like creating a supervirus that goes out of control after killing smaller viruses, Connolly, in the end, made the situation worse more than better.
LESSON #3: GREATER TARGET AND GREATER RISK COMES WHEN MOVING FROM SMALL TIME TO BIG TIME-- Whitey Bulger wasn't exactly a small fry hood in South Boston before turning into an FBI informant in 1974. Nonetheless, squeezing out his rivals raised his influence and power. It also increased the target on his back with his crimes, even with the shielding from Connolly and his brother. The same goes for Connolly in his journey from a small-time federal agent to a power-drunk veteran hiding behind fancier suits. The higher you ascend, the greater the potential fall, on both sides of the law.