The anti-hero, the criminal, and/or the villain as protagonist are all more fascinating than being stuck with a boring do-gooder as your lead. In the rare instance we get to spend a lot of time with an unsavory type, it is rewarding as these characters tend to be complex and layered. That is exactly what we get with “Black Mass”.
Largely in testimonial flashback, we meet James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) the leader of the Irish Winter Hill Gang, who ran things in South Boston. Rival gangs are a drag which makes a proposal set forth by childhood friend and now FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) that much easier to accept. Bulger informs on his rival gangs while receiving protection for himself and his gang. It’s ratting, but it’s also eliminating the competition. Also greasing the wheels is Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) president of the Massachusetts State Senate.
While this goes swimmingly for awhile, complications arise that make this alliance seemingly untenable. This can only end poorly…
The typical gangster elements are in place and are enjoyable, the true heart of this film is the alliance between the FBI and Bulger. Loyalty is important to these characters and seeing as the leads are all in wildly different corners of the law and community. It takes a certain amount of thinking that the ends justify the means in terms of cleaning up the streets with the rationale that it’s better to have one closely-monitored gang running around than half a dozen uncontrolled gangs.
As such, it’s an odd film. We aren’t given a completely straightforward tale and it’s fairly straight-faced and grim. There isn’t a truly ‘good’ character to root for as the protagonists are all corrupt and murderous anti-heroes while those who are actually out to do the right thing are usually seen in a poor light.
This just doesn’t quite feel as epic or important as some of the classics of the genre. It is undeniably well made and entertaining without breaking any new ground. When it ends, you will probably be very satisfied, but it is unlikely to have the long-lasting impact of ‘Goodfellas’ or its ilk.
This is a massive return to form for Depp. After a series of uninspired acting choices/films, here, he immerses himself in a memorable character. While ‘Public Enemies’ worked as a whole, ‘Black Mass’ is more concerned with the stature of Bulger, and as a result, the movie exists to serve that. This character is more memorable than either this movie or ‘Public Enemies’. Edgerton and Cumberbatch ably play the other two corners of this complicated legal triangle. Dakota Johnson has remarkably little to do as Bulger’s girlfriend and Kevin Bacon is reduced to expressing law enforcement administrator concerns.
Special features include: nothing.
‘Black Mass’ is a very good crime drama. It tells an interesting real-life story that just received closure in the last few years. Even more than that, it is an acting exhibition.
Add an extra half star to this rating.
Rated R 122 minutes 2016