Johnny Depp went from well-known but quirky actor to a huge star, an actor who embraced the weird, the odd and the deranged and was the better for it. He was a big star and he still is, but his film choices since have been more hit or miss. Some decent performances but nothing too crazy and not a whole lot of box office success (yeah yeah, I know that's not the end-all, be-all). Well, 2015's Black Mass is getting all sorts of positive buzz, much of it surrounding Mr. Depp himself. Onward Boston gangsters!
It's 1975 and in south Boston -- AKA Southie -- James "Whitey" Bulger (Depp) is a small-time gangster (but an extremely dangerous one) with a tight-knit crew of like-minded crooks called the Winter Hill Gang. Their Irish territory is under pressure from the other end of town where the Italian mafia is muscling in, forcing Whitey's hand. He gets an out in the form of FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a local boy done good, returning to Boston swearing he'll leave his mark. Connolly convinces Whitey to be an FBI informer, giving him any dirt he can on the seemingly unstoppable Italian mafia. As both men discuss, it isn't ratting anyone out. It's simply business. It's an alliance that helps both sides. Well, it may help one side more than the other. Connolly intends to do something good -- while turning a blind eye in other places -- while Whitey sees the vast potential in front of him. He was dangerous before. Now what can he accomplish with the FBI's protection?
No point in beating around the bush. Johnny Depp or more appropriately...JOHNNY DEPP. An always reliable actor basically no matter the movie, script or subject matter, Depp makes the average usually pretty interesting. When he's working with really good material? Here we sit, Depp stealing the show in director Scott Cooper's film that's based on the true story of infamous Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger (<--- about="" actually="" and="" as="" be="" but="" can="" could="" cover="" crazy="" decades.="" details="" don="" exploits="" happened="" help="" his="" how="" i="" if="" in="" is="" it="" itself="" keep="" knew="" little="" moving="" multiple="" obvious="" of="" p="" people="" performances="" read="" s="" some="" sorts="" spoilers="" story="" stupid="" t="" terms="" that="" the="" things="" thinking="" throughout.="" type="" want="" watching="" without="" you="">
Depp is an excellent actor, but here he's really working with a worthy character. The physical transformation is startling and chilling, Depp wearing icy blue contact lenses, donning a pointed prosthetic nose and makeup that thinned his hair. He looks evil. Like really evil, and the story helps develop that with ease. It is an intimidating, frightening performance, full of foreboding and doom that show the depths one man will go to in maintaining his hold on the power he has. Stay local? You'll be fine. Start to look for a way out? Start looking for a bullet with your name on it. Some attempts are made to humanize Bulger early on and it works to a point, but you really do get a sense of the evil in the man as the years pass and the body count rises. A testament to Depp's ability is that he does it with ease. You never get the sense he's trying too hard or hamming it up. He just dives in headfirst and goes for it full-bore.
An excellent performance, one that deserves the early Oscar buzz Depp is generating. There isn't a weak performance in the entire film, all the actors hitting the right notes one after another. It just shows you how good Depp is that not much else in the cast is being mentioned. The names though...those names. As he showed with Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace (liked it a lot), some very talented actors want to work with Mr. Cooper. He's a talented director, getting the most out of his cast, both major supporting parts and smaller but still essential parts. Edgerton is excellent in a part that defies reality. No one could be both this dense and high-reaching, could they? I would have liked some more development of Agent John Connolly, but you get a picture of a man who wants results, the means be damned. Not as frightening as Whitey, but scary in a different way that puts into perspective how far some will go to get the job done.
Lots and lots of other very talented actors to check out. Benedict Cumberbatch -- getting third billing -- plays Whitey's younger brother, Billy, a state senator in Massachusetts in spite of what his brother is up to. A small but essential and layered performance. Whitey's crew includes Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (excellent) and W. Earl Brown, all part of Whitey's madness and power. David Harbour steals his scenes as Morris, Connolly's right-hand man in their doings with Whitey, with Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll as other office representatives at the D.A. and FBI. Because that's not enough, also look for Dakota Johnson (shaking off the awful Fifty Shades of Grey), Peter Sarsgaard, and Julianne Nicholson in key supporting parts.
'Mass' covers a lot of ground in its 122-minute running time, but it never feels rushed. The time jumps are never too severe and find a decent rhythm. If there's an issue -- and it ain't a crippling one -- it's that Cooper's film is missing that one special something to make it a classic. The story is always interesting, the casting pretty spot-on and the musical score from Junkie XL adds something to the tension and sense of foreboding. It's missing that final ingredient to take it up to the next level though, and I can't quite put my finger on it. The story is familiar, a tad predictable, and at times feels a little too influenced by The Departed, The Town and any number of Scorsese crime dramas. It's tough to criticize a movie for something like that. This is a true story that no doubt influenced those movies, but those movies hit theaters first. Make sense? Nah? I'm not even sure!
An easy movie to recommend, especially for the acting from top to bottom, especially Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch. An excellent lead performance from Depp, one of the first to gain some Oscar buzz as we fast approach the end of the year and the beginning of award season. Definitely worth seeking out if not a classic.
Black Mass (2015): ***/****--->