Review: Black Mass – Not so tighty Whitey

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Black MassJohnny Depp as a wolf, Johnny Depp as a pseudo Inspector Clouseau, Johnny Depp as a mad scientist, Johnny Depp as an Indian, Johnny Depp as a comedic vampire and now Johnny Depp as an albino-like Irish gangster in the new film, Black Mass. Has Johnny Depp jumped the shark, or will he merely play the shark in that movie?

I can’t quite put a finger on how or why, but Johnny Depp buried beneath prosthetics and poorly rendered make-up has just become a distraction, often pulling my attention away from what could otherwise be fairly decent films. We get it, he’s the man of a million faces, but that gimmick long ago ran its course.

Playing the infamous Boston crime boss, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Depp has the accent, the bald head, the nasty teeth and the animalistic contact lenses, but I never for a moment thought he was anyone but the actor beneath a bunch of bad make-up. The weak script packed full of stereotypical gangster dialogue didn’t help much either.

Directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace), the narrative of this crime-bio pic is a mess. It starts out well enough with FBI interviews of the primary characters transitioning into flashbacks of the Irish gang activities of the seventies and eighties. But then the story moves into the FBI’s perspective of events, without explaining where those details are coming from. In other words, if you are going to tell your story in a multiple point-of-view manner (as this film tries to do), then you need make the audience aware of each source (which this film fails to do.)

Black MassBlack Mass tells the true story about how the FBI worked with Whitey Bulger to take down the Italian mafia, while at the same time giving the Irish gang a pass on their own criminal activities. Joel Edgerton gives a way over-the-top performance as FBI agent, John Connolly, who oversaw the informant dealings with Bulger, his childhood friend.

What the title ‘Black Mass’ has to do with any of this can probably only be explained in the book the movie is based on, Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal, because there is no clue regarding any type of ‘mass,’ black or otherwise, in the film.

Depp isn’t the only one who is distractingly disguised in this movie. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger’s politician brother, Billy, who speaks with a Connecticut accent that is completely unconvincing coming out of his face. (I love you, man, but you were totally miscast in this role.) Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons is also almost unrecognizable as Whitey’s criminal protégé and without the overdone make-up I’d have said he did a great job.

Black MassAlso wasted in this movie is Kevin Bacon an FBI department head; Dakota Johnson as a couple shades of Whitey’s girlfriend; Peter Sarsgaard as a crazy drug addict; Corey Stoll as a mean-spirited Assistant US attorney and Adam Scott as stands around looking intense FBI guy.

Despite its interesting and true premise (which could have been delivered in the same vein as the infinitely better American Hustle), Black Mass, is a by-the-numbers gangster movie made by people who have obviously seen way too many gangster movies. Depp talks tough, beats someone up, talks some more, then shoots someone. Just like with the overwrought make-up, we’ve been there and done that too many times.

I recommend watching the 60 Minutes piece on the actual capture of Whitey Bulger, which is barely mentioned in this movie, but is much more entertaining and informative than the whole of this film. Grade: 4/10

Photos © 2015 Warner Bros. Pictures


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Bob Leeper
Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.