“And just fucking like that, I was one of them. And I was a big fucking deal.”
So yeah, I’ve been falling out of love with Johnny Depp pretty hard this last few years. Outside of a couple of… let’s say interesting turns in films like Rango and The Rum Diaries, his appearances on the big screen have been lacklustre at best and just plain awful at worst. I mean, what in the name of Jesus beaten left testicle was going on in Tusk? It’s all good that you’ve got more money than God and you can take your pick of projects, but why the hell would you pick The Lone Ranger?
But… But, but, but! I do love me a good crime drama, the closer to true life the better and with 2009’s Public Enemies and 1997’s Donnie Brasco, Depp stars in two of my favourites. Stupid recent roles aside, I had high expectations for Mr Depp’s turn as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass.
Directed by Scott Cooper – of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace fame – and based on the biographical book of the same name, Black Mass is the true story of James Bulger, a small time crook that became the most powerful gangster in South Boston with the help of his gang, his politician brother and – to coin the subtitle of the book and the tagline on the film poster – his unholy alliance with the FBI.
Kicking off in 1975, we are told Whitey’s story from a police interview room as they question henchman Kevin Weeks, a doorman who impressed Bulger by standing his ground and taking a beating doing his job. Quickly becoming Bulger’s driver and playing the part of his muscle makes him the perfect guy to tell the story of the next twenty years to us, and the police. As Weeks spills the beans on Whitey’s past endeavours, we meet the man while he’s just a small time hoodlum working he way up to full blown gangster status; not far removed from a prison stint that included three years in Alcatraz, Bulger spends his days working his way through South Boston making sure everyone knows that he is the guys to be scared of. At the same time, James’ politician brother William is keeping himself busy protecting his sibling, keeping him safe from prying eyes and organising meetings with John Connelly, an FBI agent that really wants to be a dirty cop and sees the Bulger brothers as the best way to do that.
The twisting stories between gangster Whitey, politician brother Jimmy and terrible bad cop Connelly span nearly two decades. From the rise of his Winter Hill mob into organised crime and his rivalry with the Angiulo brothers of North Boston that eventually led to his conspiring with the FBI; to Bulger’s eventual fleeing Boston, the law, and his rivalries to stay alive and out of prison.
Black Mass is all about the performances. While the tale it’s weaving is great and Cooper’s direction and story telling style are amazing, it’s the stellar cast and superb acting from almost all of them that make this film stand out. First and foremost is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of local gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, his time on screen is almost flawless. Sure, his makeup is a little dodgy and he looks a bit like a 50 year old Draco Malfoy, but Depp is suitably evil in every scene he is in and has mastered the craft of the psycho eyes that make him just terrifying – one scene where he threatens a copper with “the last thing I’d do if I was planning to harm you, is fucking warn you about it” may be the scariest thing I see in a weekend that includes a Crimson Peak screening. It’s the role that has restored a little love and faith in Johnny Depp and may he pull performances like this one from here on in.
Depp’s support is almost perfect too. Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent John Connelly, the agent that comes dangerously close to being a bungling fool in the grand scheme of things but is just dying to be hot shit is great. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for Edgerton, but he does the simple role very, very well. Jesse Plemons – a guy I only know from the excellent Friday Night Lights – essentially plays two parts; Kevin Weeks the big time gangster’s muscle and Kevin Weeks the informant driving the narration forward for us and in both roles he shines. Quickly erasing the teenage football player image I had for him and making him a bit of a bad ass. Maybe the biggest mis-step in casting comes in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch. Now I have a lot of time for the Sherlock actor, but his casting as Whitey’s politician brother Billy seems like stunt casting at its worst. Not because he’s bad or because he’s used to sell the film, but just to say “we got Cumberbatch in our flick” and it really wasn’t necessary; he just doesn’t seem to fit the role that he’s been given. With appearances from Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson and Rory Cochrane all running in support, Black Mass has more than enough acting chops on screen to keep almost anyone entertained.
Overall, Black Mass is excellent. It’s an interesting slice of time from the crime stories of Boston and while it comes across a little like a true story version of The Departed mixed with a slightly unhealthy dose of wanting to be Goodfellas, it is an amazing way to spend a couple of hours. It pains me to say it, in a year that had Tom Hardy starring in a Kray twins film, but Black Mass may be the best crime film you can see this year.