With his latest performance as James “Whitey” Bulger in “Black Mass,” Johnny Depp joins the ranks of Hollywood’s gangsters of cinema’s Golden Age such as Robinson, Bogart and Cagney. Depp’s career has been under fire as of late thanks to the box office bomb that was “The Lone Ranger,” his turn as a Canadian investigator in Kevin Smith’s bizarre “Tusk,” and the poorly received Peter Sellers routine in “Mortdecai.” His latest role will restore your faith in the 52-year-old actor, though the movie itself disappoints.
Over the past decade, Boston has been a popular setting for crime movies. You’ve got classics like “Mystic River,” “Gone, Baby, Gone,” “The Departed” and “The Town.” There’s something so alluring about that South Boston accent (“pahk tha cah in tha Hahvahd yahd”) and the mobster images it conjures, particularly that of the Irish Mafia. The world of bloodthirsty gangsters and paranoid law enforcers with last names like O’Sullivan and Connolly who are always on the hunt to bring down crime bosses is an intriguing one.
Depp is no stranger to men who have been hounded by the government. He played an undercover cop turned criminal in “Donnie Brasco,” cocaine smuggler George Jung in “Blow,” and infamous Depression-era gangster John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies.” However, he commands, nay, enslaves, the screen in Scott Cooper’s (“Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace”) “Black Mass,” which tells the story of Whitey Bulger, Boston’s most notorious Irish-American crime lord. He eventually became an informant for the FBI, who unknowingly, gave him free reign to murder, peddle drugs and provide weapons to the IRA in exchange for information that helped bring down Italian mafia members who were encroaching on his turf. Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang essentially controlled all of the crime in South Boston in the late ‘70s and ‘80s until he became a fugitive in the mid-1990s. Shockingly, he was only captured back in 2011 after spending 12 years on the Bureau’s Most Wanted List.
Based on the book of the same name, the film focuses on Bulger’s alliance with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who allowed his childhood friend to literally get away with murder in Boston and in Florida. The audience learns about the different episodes of Bugler’s escapades through interviews with his former associates who are being interrogated by the FBI. One side hopes to gain information while the other side seeks clemency for spilling the beans on their boss.
With his piercing blue eyes, slicked back hair, yellowing teeth and neutral facial expressions, Depp portrays Bulger like a poisonous snake that could strike at any moment. Like Joe Pesci in a Scorsese crime movie, he’s a raging psychopath that can switch from happy to homicidal faster than you can ask “Are you a cawp?” It gets so unpredictable that you can’t expect what Whitey will do next and you’ll laugh from the unease. That’s the movie’s and also Depp’s greatest asset. Don’t be shocked if Captain Jack gets nominated for best actor this year.
The production design department did its job well in setting the ‘70s and ‘80s with old-fashioned cars and clothing styles. Other than these standout aspects, the movie is actually kind of boring and somewhat confusing. In other words, it’s this year’s “American Hustle.”
Like a Scorsese crime drama, it has great performances backed by vivid production values. Unlike a Scorsese crime drama, it’s not very fun. Since “Mean Streets,” Marty has perfected the genre through the use of pitch black humor, period-specific music, gratuitous violence and unconventional storytelling to make us feel like we’re part of society’s underbelly for well over two hours. Cooper had the chance to make this his “Goodfellas” and failed miserably. He could have brought the groovy decades alive with a soundtrack full of classic rock to make Whitey’s misdeeds come alive. Instead, we get one rock song by The Animals, one disco song by Thelma Houston, and a forgettable score by Junkie XL. It’s so sad to see such potential wasted.
Even the all-star cast barely feels like part of the story. Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Jesse Plemons, Dakota Johnson and Peter Sarsgaard flit in and out of the story with very little screen time. Benedict Cumberbatch, however, is a nice addition as Whitey’s senator brother William who swaps his British accent for a New England one.
To me, the biggest drawback of the entire affair is the fact that we’re constantly told and shown how crazy Bulger is, but we never really get under the skin of the main character, even when tragedy befalls him in the deaths of his son and mother. There’s no real window into his psyche with the Henry Hill narration that tells us what he’s thinking or what his aspirations are. No “As far back as I can remember…” Depp’s Bulger isn’t a sentimentalist like that. He’s a stone cold killer who won’t let anyone (other than his loved ones) stand in his path to power. He’s a guy who truly wants his shape the world he lives in.
It’s a shame we never really get to know the implacable man behind those Matador sunglasses. Maybe no one ever really did.