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Beyond car chases and shoot outs, mob movie are about street success. The little guy coming up and making it big against all odds, often by blurring the line between legal and illegal. The best films in the genre paint these mythic anti-heroes as real people: flawed, relatable and human. The average movies focus on the crimes, not the people behind them.
Black Mass falls somewhere in between. Despite several attempts to humanize an infamous gangster and a return to form performance by Johnny Depp, Black Mass ends up a well-made yet ho hum bit of mobster cinema.
Depp plays James “Whitey” Bulger, the small time South Boston gangster who grew to be one of the country’s most notorious criminals. With his childhood friend and FBI investigator John Connolly (Joel Edgarton) keeping the feds at bay and his senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) looking the other way, Bulger finds himself on the fast track to mobster infamy.
Before I get to the criticisms, let me be very clear: Black Mass is a well-made movie. The pacing is spot on, there are some good performances and the flashes of violence deliver the intended punch. There’s nothing terribly wrong with the movie.
Problem is, there’s nothing terribly right about it either. Like the proverbial jack of all trades, nothing in Black Mass stands out as exceptional. The themes of political corruption have been done before, attempts to make Bulger relatable through family falls flat and the dialogue is standard mob movie fare. Inside of focusing his effort into catching a shark, Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Outside the Furnace) casts a wide net and comes back with a pile of Boston scrod.
And do you know what’s bad about cod? It’s pretty bland. Nobody expected Scarface, but we never see any passion or rebellious joy in Bulger’s crimes. Instead, we get a central anti-hero that feels like he’s clocking into a 9 to 5 instead of leading a growing crime syndicate. While this may be in keeping with Bulger’s workmanlike persona, it never generates a spark. Part of the fun in mob movies is living vicariously through the villains. In Black Mass, it feels like too much work. It’s almost too serious for its own good.
Luckily, there are some excellent moments in Black Mass that save it from being a total shrug. Depp disappears into the role of Bulger, creating an intense and chilling character. His best moments are when he’s being menacing and intimidating. A fantastic dinner table scene where he puts a scare into Connolly’s FBI partner, and later his wife, drips with tension and is almost worth the price of a rental. Bulger’s right hand man (Rory Cochrane) has a pair of wonderfully acted scenes and Benedict Cumberbatch stands out every time he’s on screen.
But the good acting isn’t enough to get the movie over the hill. When the facts and figures are finally weighed, Black Mass averages out to average. Despite some good performances and exceptional scenes, Scott Cooper’s third feature feels like a checklist of mob movie must haves as opposed to the character drama it was designed to be.
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The ensemble cast acts their hearts out with Johnny Depp leading the way. Still moments of intimation are filled with dread.
Boring, slow and a bit lifeless. Many of the film's elements feel like they were checked off of a mobster movie checklist. The interpersonal relationships never click as intended.