BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA
As far back as Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson’s 1932 film “Scarface,” gangster movies have been a staple of American cinema.
Over time there have been films such as the “Godfather” trilogy, the “Scarface” remake (1983), “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Untouchables,” and “Goodfellas,” all of which have made significant contributions to the genre with their deep and detailed stories of organized crime.
Now, director Scott Cooper brings us his crime drama, “Black Mass,” which focuses on James “Whitey” Bulger, one of the most infamous and deadly gangsters in American history. While the movie doesn’t reach the heights of classic gangster films of past decades, the cast, especially a disturbing performance from Johnny Depp as Bulger, makes this film an interesting watch as we see the impact that Bulger had on mob life.
In 1975, Irish-American mobster James “Whitey” Bulger controls most of South Boston’s organized crime with the assistance of his Winter Hill Gang. He is soon approached by FBI agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who proposes a deal with Bulger to help bring down a common enemy: the Italian mafia.
While Bulger agrees to this, he uses it as an opportunity to do whatever he pleases, and Connolly soon realizes that he might not have as much control over Bulger as he had hoped. Given the quality of Johnny Depp’s performances over the last few years, it looked like he was mainly doing them for an easy payday, which was a shame because he showed in several movies before then that he had terrific acting skills.
In “Black Mass,” Depp provides an absolutely chilling performance, one that is not only his best of the last 10 years, but one of his best ever. Watching him perform in this role was similar to watching Steve Carell in last year’s “Foxcatcher,” in that I never knew Depp could go this dark and ruthless with a character, but it was stunning to witness.
Depp brings an abundance of tension to the role, diving completely into the depraved and violent behavior of Bulger. To have Depp make a comeback in a role such as this and show a whole other side of his talent make his return to form very worth the wait.
Because of the stellar performances, it takes a bit of time to realize that they are what elevate this film beyond its fairly standard gangster story. The screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, which is based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, has some tense gangster scenes, but none of them really have the power to be remembered as strongly as those from superior gangster films.
Instead, it is mainly the scenes involving James and John with their families that stick with you because you see how these two individuals act when with their loved ones and how their families handle these men who do what they do. Despite the familiarity of the film’s structure, director Scott Cooper brings a dark and ominous tone to the film that compliments the terror of Bulger.
With the ability to handle a cast that is as accomplished as this one, Cooper makes an admirable first attempt at the gangster genre. If you want to know the feeling again of watching a current Johnny Depp performance that’s reflective of his true talents, you’ll want to see this film.
Final grade: B+