If you asked me what is one of my personal favourite genres of films are, I would say the crime genre would definitely be pretty up there for sure. There’s a lot of reasons why I like crime films but I guess the main one being that I always found it just to be a really riveting genre of film (if you look at any of my all time favourite films, I guarantee you’ll find a few on there). Especially if they are based on true stories like the film BLACK MASS, which is about the infamous Irish-American mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.
Based on true events, the film tells the story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), a small time gangster who is the leader of gang called the Winter Hill Gang in South Boston in the mid-70s. One day Whitey approached by F.B.I. agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who was friends with him and his senator brother William ‘Billy’ Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) when they were kids. Connolly offers Whitey an interesting proposition: work as an informant for the F.B.I. and help them bring down a major Boston mafia family called the Anguilo Brothers. At first Whitey refuses at first but after one his men is murdered by the Anguilo Brothers, he agrees. However while helping the F.B.I., Whitey decides to use Connolly’s ‘protection’ as an opportunity to get rid of the local competition and become a major crime lord in the city of Boston.
I must admit that before I watched this film, I actually knew very little about the real life James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. The only major things that I knew about him is that he was one of the most dangerous gangsters in U.S. history (for a long time, he was number 2 on the F.B.I.’s most wanted list) and that his life has been basis or inspiration for many crime films/TV shows over the years (most notably Jack Nicholson’s character “Frank Costello” in THE DEPARTED was based on him). I guess in a way this film (which would be the first narrative film to tackle him on-screen) would be my first introduction to Bulger’s story. So what did I think of it? No surprise, I thought that it was still a well crafted and riveting drama crime film. One of the main reasons why I found the film really compelling, was because of Johnny Depp’s performance as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. I know Depp has been accused of basically phoning in his performances or appearing mediocre/crappy films over the pass few years, but I thought that he really brought his A game here. He was absolutely fantastic and I couldn’t look away every time he was on-screen. He really disappeared into his role (with the help of make up and prosthetics of course) and delivered a very intimidating and even genuinely frightening performance as Bulger. Depp definitely deserves all the praise he’s getting for this role. He’s just magnetic and creepy in it. Not only was he great, the rest of the cast were equally as good as well.
Aussie actor Joel Edgerton did really good job in his role of F.B.I. Agent John Connolly. He definitely had quite a complex character to work with and you can tell that he relished playing this role. Edgerton’s scenes with Depp were quite compelling and the film is just as much about his character Connolly’s story as it with Bulger’s. The supporting cast was great as well and its pretty much like a who’s-who of wonderful character actors (Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, David Harbour, and many more). Granted while some of them don’t have as much screen time as they should, they all make the most of their roles and still give top-notch performances regardless. Director Scott Cooper (CRAZY HEART, OUT OF THE FURNACE) did really fine job with his direction. He brought a subtlety to how he approached the film, which I found quite engaging (plus he knows how to build tension with some of the film’s intense sequences). The script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (which is based on the 2001 non-fiction book of the same name) was pretty well written, Masannobu Takayanagi’s cinematography was appropriately moody and the score by the terrific score by Tom Holkenberg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) was both ominous and intense.
Now was there any aspects of the film that didn’t work for me? Like I said earlier while I did really liked BLACK MASS, I will admit that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table that we haven’t seen many times before on other crime/gangster films in the past. I suppose since Bulger’s life has inspired many them that when it actually finally came to adapt his story to the big screen, we wouldn’t be surprised at all by the stuff that happens in the film since we’ve seen it done before. Honestly it didn’t bother me too much but that being said, it would have been better if the filmmakers brought something a little different to the table so that BLACK MASS could stand out a bit more in the genre. Also even though I don’t really know all that much about the real exploits of Bulger (I know, I know. I’m terrible), I did get the feeling while watching the film that it did seem like the filmmakers were trying to cover many aspects of his life during it’s two hour running time. The film kind of goes from one subplot to another rather quickly and some of them aren’t really delved into much (maybe it would have been better if the film was longer). Plus while they all did extremely well with what they were given, I wish that the female cast members (Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple) were given a bit more to do with their roles.
Overall while BLACK MASS isn’t the truly amazing gangster film as it could have been, I still found it to be a really engaging and gripping one nonetheless. Plus the strong performances from the cast are definitely what kept me invested though out. Especially Johnny Depp, who’s one of the biggest reasons for checking this film out. If you’re someone who enjoys gangster/crime films, I think you’ll find this pretty compelling as well. Sure it’s not amazing by any means, but it’s still pretty damn good.
NOTE: You can also check out my friend/SuperMarcey.com contributor Bea Harper’s review of BLACK MASS right here.
Review written by Bede Jermyn
Great review. While I enjoyed the film, I found it very forgettable. It just wasn’t as engaging as something like Departed, which is ironic given Whitey Bulger inspired Jack Nicholson’s character in that film, as you mentioned. Depp was fantastic however. It’s good to see him back to playing actual characters with depth.