Said to be the return of the legendary Johnny Depp that we know and love from such films as Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd, it was a chance to escape the days of overused Captain Jacks and inexcusable appearances in films like Mortdecai, but can one film really be his redemption? Quick answer for me would be yes. Depp is James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, career criminal and on the F.B.I. most wanted list while working as an informant for the exact agency, Black Mass tells his story during his rise to notoriety, and the mess he left behind on the way. Also starring Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon, it is a violent and dramatic story that was begging out to be told.
Depp is definitely back on better form here, he is undeniable from his career an actor of big characters; everyone from the Mad Hatter to Willy Wonka to Jack Sparrow, this is where he excels so given the appearance and personality of Whitey it was a good match. It’s clear straight away that he is the centerpiece and everyone else is background, it is all about Whitey and Depp does well to keep the light drawn over him. The only secondary to him would be Joel Edgerton’s John Connolly, the F.B.I agent in charge of handling Whitey as an informant, of sorts. Edgerton does a good job of creating someone where you just don’t know what his motives are, is he really doing it for the agency or is he working with Whitey? It’s difficult to say definitively, it’s a great job of not giving too much away too quickly. Though I do have to point out my disappointment in that this is a film in which South Boston might as well have a credit in the cast and yet not one of the main cast members are from Boston, they could have snuck someone, anyone that was actually a Bostonian but afraid not. I’m going to skim over talking about the women in this films as they’re all fairly short lived roles and are not vital to the plot.
We do have to talk about one and only Cumberbatch attempting, not horrifyingly, a Boston accent and playing a Senator which is a fairly nice fit, he does suit the role of a politician but I can’t really claim that he adds a lot to this cast other than that it will draw people in to have Depp working with Cumberbatch. A good job but not earth-shattering. Another fairly unnecessary presence is Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation, Secret Life of Walter Mitty) who despite being born to play stick in the mud government employees, really doesn’t impress here and really only has a few sentences to add to the mix. Then there’s Bacon who is much of the same, it feels more like a throwback to his days of Mystic River than it does a real impact on this film. This film should really be a team effort but without a doubt it is the Depp/Whitey show with sidekick Edgerton/John.
Realistically this film could have been this decades great gangster film, as there’s been a fair gap in the market over the last few years, the most recent to come to mind would be American Gangster in 2007 or The Departed in 2006, but it doesn’t achieve that. Despite the salty language and admitted violence, it does not feel dark nor gritty, it almost feels like a character focused drama with some murders mixed in. The truth is that it’s an interesting and compelling story about some truly terrible people and actions that has the added interest of being based on a real life story but it almost feels safe, it doesn’t go that extra mile to blow you away (excuse the gangster pun). There’s great performances and a good story but it doesn’t quite hit the not that a film of this genre should, which is not surprising given that it’s directed by a director (Scott Cooper, Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) whose expertise is more in character pieces than gangster films. I would definitely recommend it but I would not go in with overly high expectations, for one thing this film is crying out for a kick-ass soundtrack to score the Boston streets that are the foreground of the film, it’s entirely possible that a more effective score could have changed the entire tone of this film and given it the darkness it needs.
Depp as Whitey is fantastic, without a doubt and it is entirely watchable and enjoyable but it doesn’t live up to what it could be, it’s simply unsatisfying. It’s really difficult to convey that while I’m saying these things it is actually a good film, the problem is only that it should be a great film but falls short of its potential.