(2015) (Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton) (R)
- QUICK TAKE:
- Crime Drama: The FBI forms an alliance with a notorious Boston crime boss in order to bring down the Italian mob there.
- It's 1975 and James "Whitey" Bulger (JOHNNY DEPP) is a crime boss who runs the Winter Hill Gang in South Boston. With enforcers such as Kevin Weeks (JESSE PLEMONS) and Steve Flemmi (RORY COCHRANE), few dare cross Whitey, and that includes his brother, Billy (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH), a powerful state senator who turns a blind eye to his sibling's behavior. While Whitey is known for his violent temper, he also has a softer side, namely that for a young son who he fathered with Lindsey (DAKOTA JOHNSON).
The FBI certainly knows about Whitey and his gang, but they're far more interested in the Italian mafia that operates in the city. Accordingly, agent John Connolly (JOEL EDGERTON) convinces his boss, Charles McGuire (KEVIN BACON), that they should form an alliance with Whitey -- John's childhood friend -- in order to bring down the mob. In exchange, they'll let the crime boss get away with most of his behavior. While fellow agent John Morris (DAVID HARBOUR) gets wrapped up in this unofficial partnership, John Connolly's wife, Marianne (JULIANNE NICHOLSON), isn't pleased with the arrangement and fears what associating with the criminal will do to her husband.
That includes him alerting Whitey about various things that might affect him, such as a drug addict hitman, Brian Halloran (PETER SARSGAARD), ratting on him to the feds. As John and Morris get deeper involved with the crime boss as the years pass, they must contend with various things that could unravel the arrangement -- including having a new, hard-nosed superior, Fred Wyshak (COREY STOLL), wanting to nail Whitey -- and possibly put their lives in danger.
- OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
- There are all sorts of old sayings about not judging other people or getting involved in their affairs if no crimes are being committed and no one is going to get hurt. Yet, there are times when you feel no other recourse but to evoke an intervention.
For many a critic, the time had seemingly come for just that regarding Johnny Depp. To be clear, that had nothing to do with drugs, drink, women, gambling or any other number of social ills. And yes, it's not exactly like his behavior in question was having any adverse affect on his income or standing in Hollywood or the hearts of moviegoers.
But after a string of artistic duds such as "Transcendence" and "The Tourist," as well as playing more than his share of wacky characters in thick makeup and elaborate costumes (in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, "Dark Shadows," "The Lone Ranger," "Alice in Wonderland," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and, gasp, "Mortdecai"), most reviewers had pretty much given up hope of him taking on a serious role in a good movie.
Thankfully, he's done just that in "Black Mass," the story of a South Boston crime boss who should have had his own intervention back in his childhood to steer him clear of his notorious life of crime. And that man would be none other than James Joseph "Whitey" Bulger, Jr., head of the Boston Irish mob crew known as the Winter Hill Gang.
Films about crime bosses are nothing new (heck, Depp's already worked in that realm in "Public Enemies" playing Dillinger), but this story is intriguing since Bulger actually served as a FBI informant for two decades and Hoover's old outfit was reportedly okay with some of his criminal behavior during that time. Oh, and his brother just so happened to be a powerful state senator.
That fascinating combination of elements is directed by Scott Cooper who works from a script written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth. They've adapted Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's 2001 book "Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob."
The filmmakers start their tale with one of Bolger's thugs turned informants (Jesse Plemons) giving info on the boss. That's followed by a flashback to 1975 where a creative FBI agent (Joel Edgerton), who grew up with the criminal and his brother (Benedict Cumberbatch), has convinced his superior (Kevin Bacon) that they should form an alliance with Bolger in order to bring down their common enemy, the Italian mob.
From that point on, Bolger is pretty much given free rein to do what he wants -- that includes, natch, killing or having plenty of other people offed, usually in fairly brutal fashion) -- all while the FBI agent and his partner (David Harbour) get in far too deep as the years pass. And during that time, Bolger starts to become suspicious of them, resulting in a fairly tense steak dinner scene that also involves the main FBI agent's wife (Julianne Nicholson).
While he is covered in lots of makeup, any initial fears that Depp might go over the top with the character are quickly lost as the actor delivers a terrific performance, often completely disappearing in the role and his character's viciousness and vindictiveness.
Supporting performances are strong across the board, while Cooper competently captures the immorality of it all, sometimes with unflinching portrayals of the related violence. It might not be quite up to Scorsese standards in terms of highly polished organized crime tales that equally unnerve and entertain viewers, but it's solid work all around.
Hopefully, it will help turn Depp back around in the right direction (although he has another "Pirates" and "Alice in Wonderland" in the pipeline), but even if he returns to his old ways, at least "Black Mass" shows he can still deliver when pushed to the task at hand. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.
Reviewed September 16, 2015 / Posted September 18, 2015
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