Film review: Black Mass (15) – Johnny Depp proves he has still got it in real …

Johnny Depp has been crap for quite some time. What do you do when you make the jump from hyper-talented Hollywood anti-hero to Disney’s cash cow?

What happens when you lose the good scripts, and make a slew of rubbish films not even close to the power of your nineties work? You star in a black as night, hard-edged, violent film to release your frustration and remind the world that you’re very good at what you do.

Thank goodness. Who could say no to Black Mass? It is directed by Scott Cooper, written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, and stars to name a few, Depp, Kevin Bacon, Joel Edgerton, Corey Stol, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson and Peter Sarsgaard. The pedigree is high. 

This film details the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, a south Boston criminal who rose to become one of the most notorious and vicious gangsters in America, mainly because he was an informant to the FBI, which in turn meant that he gave himself carte blanche to do what he liked.

We start in 1975 when Bulger makes the deal, and continue through to his eventual arrest and imprisonment.

From the outset, we’re confronted with street-smart, dangerous Bostonian men, punching and kicking their way through life. Men are brutally murdered, lots of people bleed and say “f**k”, and Bulger loses his son, his wife and his mother.

It comes as no surprise that this film is not exactly a barrel of laughs.

Unlike so many gangster films, and notably The Departed which deals with the same subject matter, this film makes zero attempt to glorify its characters. It’s bleak stuff, but it’s very good.

The cinematography is classy and atmospheric, the direction accomplished and paced, and the acting, respectful and clear, without ever dissolving into Boston caricatures.

Special mention of course must go to Johnny Depp who we find in fantastic form, a rarity of late.

He turns his back on his usually barmy and now tiresome characters, and goes for something real, dark and scary. Make up, balding hair and terrifying blue eyes complete the transformation.

The angular cheek bones are unmistakably Depp, but with those contacts in, and the waxed eyebrows, he looks like the devil and behaves like him too.

His performance gives us an unnerving and ferocious Bulger.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays his Senator little brother, Kevin Bacon, a dogged FBI big wig, Corey Stol a workaholic agent, Saarsgard an unhinged cocaine nut and Joel Edgerton gives a brilliant turn as the slimy FBI agent who organises the whole informant business in the first place.

The perennially underrated Rory Cochrane also gives a “still waters run deep” performance as one of Bulger’s muscle men.

Now, if one thinks about it, it is clear that this movie offers nothing new.

The film world is saturated with gangster flicks, Bostonian tough guys have been committed to celluloid to the point of cliché, and with an Oscar winning film on the same subject matter to boot, it is quite a feat to be able to make this film stand out, but stand out it does.

It succeeds by dint of the fascinating true story, but also because it chooses to give zero rock star status for the head honcho, and its design is brutally bleak.

Unfortunately, Edgerton’s John Connolly has a wife and she is more or less a plot device in the movie, which is a shame, and Benedict Cumberbatch seems like a bizarre casting choice to play Johnny Depp’s brother.

His accent is decent, and he’s fully committed to the scenes, but it’s difficult to see why this solitary British thesp is there at all.

That being said, the film ultimately succeeds. Mallouk and Butterworth further prove they can write for screen, Cooper solidified his directing prowess, and, thank heavens for movies far and wide, Depp has still got it.

Black Mass is out Friday, November 27

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