The new gangster biopic “Black Mass” is a great opportunity for another extensive Johnny Depp transformation, but I’d take his more engaging “Donnie Brasco” any day of the week. In both films, as in most mob pictures, the concept of loyalty is front and center: in “Brasco”, Depp’s real-life deep cover agent was conflicted over a burgeoning father/son dynamic with his mentor/target (Al Pacino). Despite this dichotomy, and the gruesome reality of the business, genuine feelings of friendship existed on both sides. In “Black Mass”, loyalty is like an equity in a volatile market. If there’s even a hint of betrayal, you’re getting dumped by the underpass.
This happens often in the film. Depp plays notorious criminal James “Whitey” Bulger, who ruled the South Boston drug trade in the ’70s and ’80s, around the height of the Pablo Escobar era in the south, which is covered in the excellent Netflix series “Narcos”. Both chronicles are violent and to the point. But “Mass”, weighing in at 2 hours, is scant, in my opinion, for such a hefty slice of crime history, especially one that’s had such a big influence on the crime genre. Depp’s character is certainly an achievement, and fascinating to watch, thanks in no small part to the makeup department: With piercing blue lenses, a dead tooth and receding, slicked back hair, his visage draws closer comparison to a serial killer than a kingpin. His threats are often delivered circuitously, like a psychotic Columbo with a heavy Boston accent on Xanax. A reassuring pat on the back is a likely indication that a bullet will follow. If he rents you an apartment, you’d better believe that’s where you’ll meet your end.
Some of the other key players in the film border on cartoonish, however. Joel Edgerton (recently excellent as writer, director and villain in “The Gift”) plays Bulger’s childhood friend John Connolly, an FBI agent hungry to climb the ranks, with a bouffant hairstyle transplanted from “American Hustle”. For most of the movie, Connolly appears as a bumbling idiot, after he forms an alliance with Bulger to get an inside track and quickly gets in over his head. Their objective: to bring down the Italian mafia, Bulger’s competition, which will also fast track a series of promotions for Connolly. Sometimes that requires Connolly looking the other way when Bulger decides to have someone offed, and it’s only so long before boss (Kevin Bacon) and the new DA (Corey Stoll) figure out what’s going on.
None too thrilled about the arrangement is Connolly’s wife, played by Julianne Nicholson, one of few sympathetic characters in the movie. Like Bacon, her talent is underutilized, save an intense moment between her and Depp, in which she outshines the chameleonic actor in spades. Nicholson’s “August: Osage County” co-star Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger’s brother, then the President of the Massachusetts Senate, who managed to keep himself separate from Whitey’s dealings for the majority of his career.
Directed by Scott Cooper (“Out of the Furnace”), and adapted from Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (the latter of whom is one of many contributors to the upcoming Bond film “Spectre”), “Black Mass” is a crime drama as methodical as its primary character, establishing him as an evil person early and often. One scene involving a family tragedy invites some deviation from this sociopathic disposition, suggesting that there is indeed a soft spot, but yields disappointingly little insight into the character outside of his murderous tendencies. It’s entertaining to watch Depp being sinister, of course. But the film as a whole feels pretty by-the-numbers, like its multitude of public parking lot executions and expendable characters. W. Earl Brown steals his scenes as Bulger’s slovenly enforcer John Martorano, who was responsible for some 20 murders, and you’ll squirm with David Harbour as Connolly’s reluctantly involved partner. Rory Cochrane is noteworthy as Bulger’s tormented confidant Steve Flemmi. An impressive cast goes on to include Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott, Juno Temple and Jesse Plemons of “Breaking Bad”, with whom the film opens. Still, “Black Mass” pales in comparison to something like, say, “The Departed”, in which Jack Nicholson’s character is said to have been inspired by Bulger.