In “Black Mass,” Johnny Depp plays the notorious Boston crime lord Whitey Bulger, and it’s nice seeing him give a real performance for a change, after swashbuckling and mumbling his way through a series of clinkers. Despite a makeup job that, with its high-domed forehead and slicked hair, makes him resemble a Kabuki samurai, he holds the screen as pure malevolence.
The film itself, directed by Scott Cooper and written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, doesn’t delve very deeply into Bulger’s psyche, which also means that Depp’s performance more often than not resembles a species of horror film monster. The attempts to “humanize” him, as in the scenes with his doting mother or his young son, are obvious sops for our sympathy. The filmmakers do a straightforward job of laying out the collusion between Bulger and the FBI, which decimated the influence of the Mafia while allowing him to reign in Boston throughout the ‘70s and '80s until he was forced into hiding in 1994. (Joel Edgerton, as the Bureau’s John Connolly, a boyhood friend of Bulgar’s growing up in South Boston, is especially good). The mob hits and garish murders are swift and brutal and effectively staged.
What’s missing is the high inspiration that set this film’s models – “The Godfather” movies and Scorsese gangster films and all the rest – above the usual mob movie fray. “Black Mass” is like a playlist of greatest hits from other, better movies.
The chance to do something more than this was, I think, inherent in a conflict never realized here: The relationship between Bulger and his upstanding brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch, excellent), who served with distinction as the Massachusetts Senate president and later as the president of the University of Massachusetts. A movie that focused on those brotherly bonds might have ended up as more than a creditable knockoff. Grade: B (Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use.)