BLACK MASS (2015) – REVIEW

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The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf.

Black Mass could well be the most disappointing film of the year.

Which isn’t to say it’s the worst film of the year, or not worth seeing; only that it’s less worth seeing than you might have hoped.  It should be noted that the film does further establish Scott Cooper as one of the most promising directors working today – but that’s specifically ‘promising’ rather than ‘interesting’ or ‘exciting’ because he still hasn’t made the great film we all expected (and yes, deserved) after the wonderful Crazy Heart.  Not really.  Out Of The Furnace was a solid and enjoyable revenge thriller, no question, but did it really have much in the way of depth or substance?

His latest, a biopic chronicling the true story of infamous gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) who terrorized 1980s Boston with fierce and brutal intimidation tactics while feeding the FBI information on rival criminal activities to keep his own back clean, has been fairly well-received so far.  For many it appears to be the film that the trailer promised; a dark, gritty, blackly comic gangster flick with an A-list cast.  In some ways I suppose it is; Black Mass does offer all of the above, and it’s not so much that it outright doesn’t work, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything very interesting with any of it.  We’ve seen this film a thousand times before; every line, every character, every beat.  It’s like a film made on a conveyor belt at the gangster movie factory.

The script devotes a great deal of attention to Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent who convinces his higher-ups to negotiate with Bulger (his childhood friend) in order to clamp down on all the other criminals ravaging the city – but the longer he spends in Bulger’s company, the further he descends into his own criminal world.  There’s a cracking story in there which yields the occasional moment of genius (one prolonged scene involving Depp intimidating the pants off of pretty much everyone at a dinner party is terrifically tense), but the potential still too often goes un-reaped.

Compared with Cooper’s last two films, the performances just aren’t there.  People keep talking about how fantastic everyone is – especially Depp, whose portrayal of Bulger is being hailed (among other superlatives) as fierce, powerful and a “return to form” – well yeah, it’s good, but really nothing special.  There’s still too much Jack Sparrow about it; the performance seems to be more about make-up than the actual acting.  Even Cumberbatch isn’t especially good, which isn’t a sentence you can expect to read too often, but that’s probably down to being given an underwritten character more than anything else.

Verdict:

It’s just not the film it could have been.  Like an all-star team that doesn’t perform on the day, every element is in place for Black Mass to blow us from our seats, but instead it all it offers is a quiet whimper.  There are a couple interesting moments and the odd gripping scene,  but there’s nothing memorable.  Here’s hoping Scott Cooper does something just a little more interesting with his next picture, whatever it may be.

Director: Scott Cooper; Screenwriters: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth; Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Dakota Johnson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard; Running time: 122 minutes; Certification: 15

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