By HART PISANI
Though he has long been considered one of Hollywood’s premier A-list actors, following a series of box office and/or critical failures there had been growing concerns over Johnny Depp’s future in film. With his transformative and mesmerizing performance in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass”, however, Depp reminds filmgoers why they fell in love with him in the first place.
Taking place in 1975, “Black Mass” tells the true story of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp), who controlled almost all of the organized crime in South Boston. Bulger’s childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), returns to South Boston after leaving to take a position with the FBI. Connolly contacts Bulger to offer him an opportunity that will benefit both Bulger as well as himself.
In exchange for giving the FBI information that would help lead to the take down of the Italian Mafia, Connolly offers protection for Bulger that would essentially allow him to grow his criminal empire – all whilst keeping Connolly’s colleagues at the FBI in the dark. Bulger accepts, and he and his gang begin their rise to power as Connolly begins his descent into darkness. Benedict Cumberbatch, Adam Scott, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson and others also star in the film.
It must be said that “Black Mass” covers very familiar territory with its Boston gangster themes. There already have been, and will continue to be, many unfavorable comparisons to films such as “Goodfellas” and “The Departed”, and accusations that “Black Mass” tries to imitate these films are not completely unwarranted. However, “Black Mass” manages to stand alone in its own right thanks in large part to Cooper’s splendid direction.
Though there are graphically violent scenes in “Black Mass,” they feel to be pretty far between one another; anyone looking for a straight up action film will be leaving disappointed. But from a dramatic standpoint, the film never fails to keep the viewer wondering what Bulger will do next. This intrigue stems primarily from the most obvious source: Depp’s performance.
Count this critic as one of the many that had feared Depp’s best days as an actor were far behind him prior to the viewing of this film. After watching Depp’s dazzling performance in this movie, however, all concerns have been erased. Depp physically, vocally and mentally transformed himself for his portrayal of Bulger. At all times when he is on screen the audience cannot help but be in awe. Depp is at all times convincing, many times frightening and sometimes even funny in a dark and twisted way. Watching his performance by itself warrants the price of admission, and is worth every penny.
The film is not without its flaws. Some of the sub-plots and supporting characters are either uninteresting, unnecessary or sometimes both. Bulger’s brother State Senator Billy Bulger (Cumberbatch) is one such example, as his role in the film is essentially pointless or at the very least underutilized from a cinematic point of view.