Johnny Depp gives the performance of his life as real-life gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.
Black Mass has a lot to live up to. Not only is it a movie based on a true story, it’s also being touted as the vehicle which will bring Johnny Depp back into the fold of being a serious actor and could possibly finally score him the coveted best actor Oscar.
So does it live up to the hype?
The movie is based on real life gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, the leader of the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang who controlled most of the organised crime in South Boston in the mid ‘70s.
He is known for being an FBI informant through much of his crime life, eventually fleeing Boston in 1994 and remaining on the run for 16 years – on the 'Ten Most Wanted Fugitive' list for 12 of those - before he was eventually caught in Santa Monica and put on trial for 32 counts including weapons charges, racketeering and complicity in murder.
There is no doubt this is a return to form for Depp.
Gone is the over-arching Captain Jack Sparrow feel there has been to the majority of characters he’s played over the last decade, and instead we’re greeted with a low-key performance which is still simmering with tension.
Depp’s Bulger is friendly in the uncomfortable, menacing way all the best gangsters are, saying more with a glance and a loaded silence than many of the lines he utters.
The film follows him as he comes around to the idea of working as an informant – not that he’d ever use those words.
The decision is made as the agent Bulger deals with is John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a former friend who feeds back information of a rival gang.
Added to the pot is Bulger’s super clean brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who just so happens to be Massachusetts State Senate President, as well as family tragedy which leaves Whitey reeling. What a tangled web we weave...
This is a straight up gangster flick, make no mistake.
We have Connolly becoming increasingly seduced by the lifestyle he’s supposed to be investigating, much to the disgust of his brilliantly-played wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), and the arrival of tough new cop Fred Wyshak (Cory Stoll) who is determined to bring the whole sham down.
All give outstanding performances and help drive the story forward, which is why some of the missteps are so jarring.
Many associates of the real Whitey have claimed his eyes changed colour when he got angry, something the film tries to depict but which such little subtly the effect is completely lost.
This is also the case with the prosthetics Depp wears; obviously they are necessary to make him look like the gangster, but the difference is more distracting that believable.
Coupled with this is a dinner party scene in which Whitey’s ghoulish humour leaves his friends uncomfortable.
Nothing wrong with that, but the sequence is impossible to watch without conjuring up images of Joe Pesci’s famous, 'I'm funny how? I mean funny like I'm a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh?’ speech from Goodfellas.
Perhaps it’s meant as a homage, but it seems a little sloppy.
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