Black Mass (Warner Bros., R)

Black Mass 75At best the result is a generic crime thriller that comes nowhere near its potential.

 

 

 

Black Mass 500

The story of Boston’s notorious crime boss, James “Whitey” Bulger, is inherently cinematic. For literally decades Bulger both was Boston’s most notorious gangster and also an FBI informant, a hard combination of things to pull off, but in Bulger’s hands they seemed a logical enough pair—he did very little actual informing (most of it was smoke and mirrors from his buddy on the FBI, John Connolly, with whom he grew up), and having an in with the FBI kept them off his back, whereas otherwise they (hopefully) would have been on his ass long before they actually were. There’s more to this story than just this hard-to-believe setup: racketeering, jai alai, extortion, selling drugs to children, murder, a brother in elected office… whatever criminal thing you can think of (and a lot of non-criminal things as well), it’s probably in here somewhere.

And yet, there has so far not been a good film on Whitey Bulger. Granted, it’s still early (semi-spoiler alert: the real Bulger was only just caught in 2011), but still, it seems like this would be easy. Last year we had Joe Berlinger’s documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger; Berlinger is one of our best documentarians, and yet his film on the subject came out pretty dry. Now we have Black Mass, so-so director Scott Cooper’s (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) dramatization of the events, and with an all-star cast at that, and at best the result is a generic crime thriller that comes nowhere near its potential.

Not that it’s bad, but it does disappointingly fit squarely into the category of starry, by-the-numbers gangster pics of recent years like Gangster Squad or The Iceman. Here Johnny Depp stars as Bulger in what is being touted as a return to form for him after a run of really terrible movies. Sadly, the heavy lifting is mostly done by Depp’s color contacts and Junkie XL’s obvious, ominous score; like the movie overall, Depp isn’t bad, but is hardly memorable, apart from those peepers. And while there are other people in the cast you know and love—Benedict Cumberbatch is State Senator Billy Bulger (I know it’s been your life’s dream to hear Cumby do a Boston accent, which he’s actually not bad at); Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) is the mother of Whitey’s child; Joel Edgerton is Connolly; Kevin Bacon is Connolly’s boss at the FBI; and people like Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott, and others pop up for a few unmemorable scenes. Of the cast Sarsgaard comes off the best, but he also doesn’t factor too directly into the story, either, so ultimately he’s not much help.

I expect that there will be a certain contingency of fans of this film, mostly made up of people who A) like pretty much all gangster movies, good or bad, or B) who have seen few to no gangster movies, and are knocked out by the promise of the genre. (Sort of like how people who apparently had never seen any thriller/mystery before were quick to hail True Detective as amazing, when in fact it was merely passable.) To the latter category, might I suggest you spend your time watching The Departed instead, which is a much better crime thriller also set in Boston, and Jack Nicholson’s character in that film was reportedly based on Whitey Bulger. So, at least there’s one good film that has a tenuous link to the real Bulger story. Hopefully another will come sooner or later, but Black Mass isn’t it. | Pete Timmermann

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