HOLLYWOOD—When you think of a great gangster flick, such classics as “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” come to mind (Note: most of those flicks weren’t necessarily circling a real-life icon). The crime drama “Black Mass,” which was adapted by the 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob chronicles the rise of Whitey Bulger, a notorious gangster that changed America.
Bulger receives the big-screen treatment courtesy of Johnny Depp, who dons a bit of make-up and odd mannerisms to tackle the ruthless mastermind. Depp, in my opinion, is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood nowadays—give this guy a role and he’ll eat it up. But something about his portrayal of Bulger falls slightly dull. He doesn’t come across as a character in the movie that is thoroughly frightening, despite the fact that perhaps that was what director Scott Cooper intended.
Depp is in terrific company with powerhouse names like Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Sarsgaard. The movie chronicles Whitey’s rise to power and his ability to control a host of people to do devious things in his attempt to gain what he wants: money and power. There is an interesting dynamic between Bulger and his long-time pal John Connolly (Edgerton).
John doesn’t dabble into the world of crime that James does; in fact, they are on opposite sides of the law. As a viewer, it would be a more interesting dynamic to see two forces go against each other. Instead, we see Connolly slowly fall under Whitey’s spell as he finds himself further intertwined in madness he never expected. If you get in the bed with a mobster, what do you expect the turnout to be?
Cumberbatch is an absolute revelation as Whitey’s brother, Billy, who also happens to be a Boston senator. He wants nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with his brother’s antics. Yet at the same time, his loyalty for his brother is so thick, it’s impossible to slice with a knife.
“Black Mass” has interesting moments. There is violence, there is blood, there is betrayal and there is quality acting taking place. But narratively speaking, this movie is not as entertaining as a viewer would expect it to be. The focus seems more on the dynamic between John and Whitey, versus everything else. We have a character on the right side of the law that does morally corrupt things to gain respect from someone he wishes he could be. Does Whitey care about John? Not in the least; his goal is to simply further his agenda, at any costs and anyone who gets in his way is taken out.
What frustrates me the most about the movie is I didn’t get the feeling that I learned anything new about James ‘Whitey’ Bulger than I already knew! I’ve seen a ton of gangster flicks in my film career, and to be honest, tales about fictional characters were way more exciting than this farce. “Black Mass” has sprinkles of fun, but not enough to make this flick an awards contender, in my opinion.