A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015)

Having long ago effaced the stigma of being a teen heartthrob on the TV series 21 Jump Street (1987-90), and having earned three Oscar nominations, Johnny Depp no longer has to prove himself as an actor. But his recent career has been marked by disastrous flops -- Alice Through the Looking Glass (James Bobin, 2016), Mortdecai (David Koepp, 2015), The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, 2013) -- and too much reliance on the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Black Mass is a partial redemption for those failings, mostly because Depp becomes the best reason for seeing it. Apart from Depp's cruel and icy portrayal of Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger, there's not enough heft and momentum to Scott Cooper's film. It takes a fascinating story of the interrelationships between Bulger's mob, the FBI, and the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and reduces it to a routine and often derivative gangster movie. Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth borrow shamelessly from GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) in a scene in which Bulger playfully terrorizes a colleague in the same way Joe Pesci's character -- "What do you mean, I'm funny?" -- frightens Ray Liotta's Henry Hill. The film often seems overloaded with good actors -- Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson -- in parts that don't give them enough to do. And while it was filmed in Boston, it misses the opportunity to capture the Boston neighborhood milieu in which Whitey, his politician brother Billy (Cumberbatch), and FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton) grew up, something that was done to much better effect in films like Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003), Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007), and even Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997). Still, the cold menace projected by Depp's Bulger is haunting, enhanced by the decision to provide the actor with ice-blue contact lenses that pierce through the shadows and give him an air of otherworldly surveillance.