In the pantheon of creepy, scumbag, psychopathic killers ever to walk the big screen, Johnny Depp’s turn as James “Whitey” Bulger ranks as one of the best in the modern era. You literally will not recognize the guy from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
Depp’s performance as Bulger in "Black Mass" ranks next to Joe Pesci’s turn as mobster Tommy DeVito in "Goodfellas" as the coldest, nastiest killer ever in the movies. Depp is better than Sonny from “The Godfather”, and he is the most convincing crime lord ever in a movie.
“Black Mass” is a good movie that nobly tries to cover one of the “great” American crime stories of the this and the last century. The only problem is there is too much to cover, and there was no need to show anybody on the screen other than Depp, who should win the Academy Award for Best Actor.
THE STORY: By the time the movie begins Bulger is out of a long prison sentence in Alcatraz, and is back in the old neighborhood in South Boston. He is beginning to climb his way to the top of the menacing Winter Hill gang in Boston, all the while two other people from his childhood are making their way to the top of their respective careers.
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His brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), was a senator that would eventually become of the most powerful men in the entire state. His friend, John Connolly (John Edgerton), was a rising FBI agent looking to bag the Italian mob in the North End section of Boston to make his career.
Connolly organizes an alliance between himself and Bulger; Bulger would give tips to Connolly to arrest the Italian mob while he was essentially allowed to run wild in a crime career that would eventually put him on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for more than a decade.
The movie is told through a series of interviews set up by FBI agents to former Bulger confidants after his arrest in 2011 – namely, a thug Kevin Weeks (Jessie Plemons).
THE PEOPLE: The people are the story, and the organized relationship between government, crime, family and loyalty among former poor Irish kids. Like any movie depicting history, some liberties are taken but the gist is close enough. The hard part in these stories are the cuts that have to be made.
Bulger was a sociopathic monster, and the movie briefly tries to explain why he was such a hardened criminal - the death of his young son and the passing of his mother. It does not attempt to explain why he was so cold before his son died, other than that he grew up in poverty surrounded by crime.
Explaining a criminal like Bulger is too difficult for a two-hour movie. He is what he is - a cold blooded murderer.
THE HIT: Depp is so good as Bulger you forget you are watching a movie star playing somebody else. He is the equivalent of Meryl Streep becoming Julia Childs or Margaret Thatcher – he is Bulger, right down the baritone, monotone Boston accent.
Depp portrays Bulger as street smart gangster that used money as leverage, and murder as intimidation. He did not care about a human life that operated in his world.
Cumberbatch is basically wasted in a supporting role as the good Bulger brother that tries to do right by family and staying out of Jimmy’s way.
Edgerton is good as the scummy FBI agent that wants a promotion above anything else.
THE MISS: It’s hard to like any of these people because they are all such scum. The movie makes no attempt to make any of the players in this sympathetic, which gives it a docudrama feel.
Too much of the movie focuses on Connolly, who according to this script relied heavily on Bulger to bag Mobsters but netted few. That point in real life is debatable, and according to a handful of the people who lived this story much of finer points in Black Mass were exaggerated.
The movie makes it appear that Connolly was simply running interference for Bulger, and simply was always seeking his validation.
Depp is so good you are disappointed when he’s not on screen.
SHOULD YOU SEE IT: Absolutely.