Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed by: Scott Cooper (“Out of the Furnace”)
Written by: Jez Butterworth (“Get on Up”) and Mark Mallouk (debut)
As fascinating as the true life story is of one James “Whitey” Bulger, a South Boston criminal-turned-FBI informant (see a better albeit still flawed retelling of it in Joe Berlinger’s documentary “Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger”), one might imagine the intense nature of the narrative pouring out of every scene in “Black Mass.” Alas, what audiences receive is a worthy attempt at a gangster movie that sort of dissolves from memory once you leave the theater. It’s a couple of steps up from Johnny Depp’s last crime biopic “Public Enemies,” where he plays pretty-boy John Dillinger, but still far from anything in the realm of greatness.
With that said, “Black Mass” isn’t a failure by any means. While it doesn’t entirely succeed in transforming Depp’s Bulger into evil incarnate, it is Depp’s vigor and commitment to the more terrifying traits Bulger possesses that keep the film from flat-lining halfway in. Let’s face it. As an A-list actor, Depp makes more bad choices in roles than most. Fault his ambition to try something totally different from anything he’s done before or fault a slew of underwritten scripts he’s been given, but Depp is the kind of actor that seems to be intrigued only by a character’s surface qualities. With a character as complex as Bulger, however, there is a lot more to explore even when the screenplay meanders into territory that never factors into who he is as a person.
Along with Depp, there are some other noteworthy performances, specifically from an underutilized Peter Sarsgaard and Julianne Nicholson. Basically, everyone not named Depp or Joel Edgerton is shortchanged, which is why any emotional connection between Bolger and other characters feels incomplete. It’s especially true with actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays William Bolger, Whitey’s brother and the President of the Massachusetts State Senate. Why screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk treat this relationship like a mere blip on the radar doesn’t make much sense.
Still, this is Depp’s movie and he has just enough material to do some interesting things with the character. It’s just unfortunate that no one else was given the same attention. If they had, “Black Mass” might’ve cut deeper.