In our Black Mass review, Johnny Depp channels his best Boston accent in a picture perfect performance in a somewhat flawed gangster movie….
By Damon Martin — Editor/Lead Writer
James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was a gangster who killed people, robbed people, ran racketeering schemes and plenty more horrific things during his 20 plus years as the king of crime in Boston.
Despite all those flaws, Bulger maintained a loyalty from some of those same people in his hometown from the time he began his criminal empire to the day he was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison.
It’s that multi-faceted person who is on display in the new film Black Mass from director Scott Cooper, starring Johnny Depp in the lead role alongside Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and many more.
The film showcases a long stretch of Bulger’s years running the streets in Boston as well as his very profitable relationship with FBI agent John Connolly that kept him out of jail and in the money for the biggest part of his criminal career. Bulger was a thug, but he was also a father who lost his son at a very young age. Bulger was a crook but he was also a son who loved his mother and was crushed when she passed away. Bulger was a murderer but he was also a brother who kept his family close no matter where he went in the world.
For some reason lately any time a film is made showcasing a real life criminal, many reviewers and a lot of fans bash the movies for glorifying an otherwise despicable character. The fact is whether it’s Jordan Belfort stealing millions in The Wolf of Wall Street or Jimmy Bulger pulling off hits in Black Mass, no character worth making a movie about is only one thing.
It’s not black and white. It’s shades of grey.
And Black Mass gets to the heart of that when examining Bulger’s real life as well as the relationships he maintained over the years, the friends he kept closest to him, the enemies he slaughtered and the power base he built and thrived on for over 20 years. Bulger was clearly a bad guy — but love him or hate him, that’s not all he was and if that bothers you, Black Mass might not be the film to watch this weekend.
If you can handle it, Black Mass isn’t as good as The Departed (which used part of Bulger’s story as inspiration) but it’s a fine gangster flick with a couple of outstanding, Academy Award winning performances throughout.
The great thing about a real life character being made into a movie is that the story is already out there available for anyone to read. In other words, nothing is a spoiler because as easily as you can read this review, you can hop on Wikipedia and get a much more detailed report on the life and crimes of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (or Jimmy Bulger as he’s called for most of the movie).
That said, Black Mass kicks off in the mid-1970’s when Bulger was still a small time hood running a crew called The Winter Hill Gang in South Boston. Bulger infamously did nearly 10 years in prison for armed robbery and actually spent several years in Alcatraz, which does get a brief mention in the film as well.
The first quarter of the movie showcases Bulger coming into power mostly after he struck a deal with FBI agent John Connolly, who grew up in the same South Boston neighborhood and was awestruck by Jimmy and his younger brother Billy when he was a kid. John comes up with the great idea to approach Jimmy and ask him to become a confidential informant. Jimmy would provide information that would help the FBI run the Italian mafia out of Boston and in exchange they would look the other way for his various crimes so long as he doesn’t murder anybody.
The deal pays off huge when Jimmy gives them the location of an Italian mob hideout that yields a massive arrest to cripple the criminal organization in Boston. In reality, Jimmy was using the FBI to do his dirty work and eliminate the competition.
While the film is a telling of Jimmy’s life, the movie also spends a ton of time exploring his relationship with Connolly and the FBI agent’s flirtation with a life of crime when he realizes how well breaking bad gets you paid. There’s also a ton of characters that decorate Jimmy’s mob life as well as his personal life including his kid brother Billy, who was a real life state senator in Massachusetts. Talk about two apples that fell far away from each other off the same tree.
If there’s a better acted film in 2015, I’m not sure I’ve seen it.
Johnny Depp’s transformation into silver and thin haired Jimmy Bulger is eye popping, but even more amazing is the smooth performance he puts on as an even tempered gang boss with a temper as hot as the barrel on a .357 Magnum.
Depp plays Bulger with such overwhelming authenticity you almost forget at moments that he’s playing a character as he performs the part with perfect pitch from voice to mannerisms to his snap-and-kill-you rage.
There’s virtually no way Depp doesn’t at least get an Oscar nomination for this performance, which is by far one of the best of his career and will even make you forget that he ever played a part in a god awful piece of shit like Mordecai.
The other standout performance in this film comes from Joel Edgerton, who plays FBI agent John Connolly.
Edgerton is fantastic as he transitions from a cop trying to make the big arrest in his hometown to the temptation he has to play both sides when his relationship with Jimmy draws him into a criminal world where he feels just a little too comfortable. Edgerton plays a slick FBI agent who power trips on his own press after Jimmy becomes his informant and he’s even better when the chips start to fall and there’s no where left to turn.
The other players in the film are great filler throughout, but it’s Depp and Edgerton who steal the show over the course of the two-hour movie.
Directing and Writing
The film is based on a book by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, who also helped bring Bulger’s criminal empire to a halt in the 1990’s, and the screenwriters adapted that from page to screen so the real life nature of the characters and the crimes they commit certainly feel authentic.
The dialogue is possibly the single best part of this movie because there’s a creepy cool that goes along with every line Depp utters as Jimmy and that’s only matched by the swagger swill that Edgerton sputters as John Connolly.
The directing is solid but really the selling point of this movie is the acting and script and Cooper was really left with the job of not fucking up what was already excellent. And the good news is, Cooper didn’t mess it up. He got out of the way and let the actors act and the story told itself.
What’s Wrong with the Movie?
The only problem with fitting 20 years of story into a two-hour film is some things get missed and other parts get rushed. The sections of Bulger’s life that were left out don’t draw away from the movie because unless you read the book or know intimate details about his criminal empire, you wouldn’t miss them anyways.
As far as the movie feeling rushed, that’s where Black Mass comes up with its biggest failure because rather than hone in on specific parts of Bulger’s rise and fall, the movie tries to really cover everything while also telling two separate stories — the one involving Jimmy and the other involving John. The balancing act in Black Mass just isn’t as even as watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play cat and mouse in The Departed.
To really get to the heart of Bulger’s misdeeds, there were a lot of murders to cover and conspiracies to unfold, but it almost felt at times as if the writers behind this movie were on time limits to only explain small sections of the story rather than develop a real sense of connection between some characters and the acts they committed.
It’s a small gripe but still one that has to be pointed out because Black Mass had so much space to cover it felt like at times the movie was using a spray painter when it should have been using delicate brush strokes instead.
Black Mass is a quality gangster movie with two Academy Award winning performances tucked into the same two hour film. There are certainly flaws with the flow of the story and the pacing of how things unfolded, but for the most part it’s a minor detail that doesn’t necessarily draw away from the overall watchability of the picture.
Black Mass gets 4 out of 5 on the Skolnick Scale