Based on the now-famous story of Boston gangster Whitey Bolger, the plot to “Black Mass” is familiar enough to make you wonder what the hell was going on in the FBI in the ‘70s. (It’s very similar to “American Hustle,” another true story. It’s not all that different from “The Departed.”) Joel Edgerton plays John Connolly, a blustery FBI informant who grew up in the same neighborhood, and feels like the two have a bond from childhood that Bulger never seems to feel. He gives Bulger a free pass in South Boston, in exchange for iinfo on the Mafia in North Boston. Bulger uses his de facto imunity to become far more powerful and dangerous than the Mafia he’s supposed to be informing on. It’s a startling case of shortsightedness combined with hubris. Connolly saw in his alliance with Bulger a golden opportunity to advance his career in the FBI; somehow he didn’t realize that Bulger would see the same opportunity for his own career as a gangster, drug dealer, and murderer.
On paper, it sounds thrilling. The raw materials are there for a great gangster flick. On the screen, though, it comes up short. Director Scott Cooper falls into one of the most basic mistakes directors make when adapting a true story – he doesn’t adapt it enough. The movie’s biggest problem is that it lacks structure. One damn thing just happens after the next. There needs to be tension and buildup, climax, release, and resolution. “Black Mass” has none of these. It’s really surprising, considering this is a movie about a dangerous sociopath in a violent subculture, how few scenes felt tense or exciting. In my book, there was one really good scene, and even it was ripped off from “Goodfellas.” (Now there’s a movie with a structure.)
Depp’s performance as Bulger is the best I’ve seen him in a serious role since “Donnie Brasco.” He is calculating and vicious, both a family man and capable of murdering whole families.. It’s a solid performance, though it’s hindered by the blue-eyed contacts he’s wearing. They look weird. The pupils never dilate. The guy’s eyes look the same in bright daylight and in a smoky barroom. It’s a neat effect if you’re playing a vampire, but, as far as I know, Whitey Bulger wasn’t a vampire. It’s a little thing, but I found it really distracting.
Cooper has invested heavily in plenty of other places. He’s worked hard to recreate a believably seedy South Boston in the ‘80s; the mise-en-scene here compares favorable to movies like “The Departed” and “Gone Baby Gone.” The cast seems almost excessively talented. It’s a very male-heavy film; there are exactly three women with any screen time at all, and only one of them I’d ever seen before. A better performance fron Bulger’s wife – as well as a better script that gives her more to do – would’ve made this a better movie.
As it is, “Black Mass” is about as good as a gangster movie can be without any exciting scenes in it. It’s not a new gangster classic, as some are calling it. I don’t think it’s even the best gangster flick this year (That would be underrated, underseen “Five Star.”)