The name James Bulger brings a chill to many older British people. For James was the little boy abducted from a shopping centre in 1993 by two older boys, murdered and left on a railway line. But the subject of “Black Mass” is real-life hoodlum James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) who grew to be the kingpin in the Boston underworld.
Heavily protected by an old friend and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, “The Great Gatsby”) who is running him as an informant, Bulger ruthlessly destroys his Boston Italian rivals and tries to keep one step ahead of sceptical FBI boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and CIA investigator Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll from “House of Cards”). Told in flashback form, the film charts Bulger’s career and his relationship with his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) who (amazing but true!) was the State Senator for Massachusetts.
Depp is a chameleon-like actor. Unlike someone like Tom Hanks (who is always ‘Tom Hanks’), Depp transforms himself physically to inhabit his roles: Jack Sparrow; Willy Wonka; The Mad Hatter; Edward Scissorhands – it is sometimes difficult to equate the roles to the same actor. In “Black Mass” he does it again, being almost unrecognisable in the role. But he delivers in the acting stakes and turns in a chilling performance as the psychopathic mob leader.
In supporting roles are Jesse Plemons (“The Program”) and W. Earl Brown (“There’s Something About Mary”) as his right (and left) arm men and the talented Dakota Johnson as the concerned mother to his son.
Although it’s good as a simple gangster film, the film is a little two-dimensional to be great.The treatment of the relationship between the brothers – surely one of the most dramatic and surprising parts of the story – is perfunctory, with Cumberbatch (sporting a good Bostonian accent) having relatively few minutes on the screen.
It’s also almost impossible to form any emotional connection with Depp’s character. Most screen villains have at least some sense of dark and shade (see Tom Hardy’s recent portrayal of Reggie Kray in “Legend”). In contrast, Depp’s Bulger is as uniformly dark as the title suggests.
Directed by Scott Cooper it’s a workmanlike film, with many inevitably violent scenes. It’s certainly watchable…. but won’t be memorable.
Fad Rating: FFF.