Another Take: Black Mass
Scott Cooper’s new film “Black Mass” is an interesting account of the downfall of South Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger that spans from 1975 to 1995 (with a contemporary coda). It’s a tight, well-written gangster saga that somehow left me feeling a little underwhelmed. Perhaps I was expecting another “Goodfellas” or “Casino,” the 1990s Martin Scorsese features that redefined the mobster genre. “Black Mass” isn’t in that league, but it is still a very effective piece of moviemaking.
“Black Mass” follows the somewhat unholy brotherhood of three lifelong best friends from the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods of South Boston. John Connolly grows up to make a career out of FBI work. Billy Bulger becomes president of the Massachusetts State Senate. And Billy’s brother, Jimmy, becomes Boston’s most famous outlaw. What makes this film work is the depth of their depraved alliance. Blood runs deep among those with arduous childhoods, we are told, and nothing ever comes between these three. At first, the results are promising. Jimmy agrees to use his connections to help Connolly nab the big Italian gang that runs North Boston in exchange for limited immunity – all under the table and off the books of course. Despite the tight reins of Connolly’s boss, this loose setup continues relatively unabated until the arrival of new prosecutor Fred Wyshak, a by-the-books type hell-bent on taking down Jimmy and his gang.
In his first “serious” role (i.e., not a cartoon character or a cartoonish character) role in years, Johnny Depp excels as the infamous Irish-American criminal although as I watched him, I couldn’t help but mentally recast the role with Leonardo DiCaprio. He could play it the way he played Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf Of Wall Street” (but with a little less flair) and achieve the same results as Depp.
Joel Edgerton, from “Zero Dark Thirty,” shines as Connolly, the FBI agent. But here again, not only does he play a similar role to that of Jeremy Renner in “American Hustle” (the good guy who gets too close to the criminal element), he looks a lot like Renner and uses many of his same mannerisms. In a strange twist of fate, British actor Benedict Cumberbatch perfects the best Boston accent in the cast as Senator Billy Bulger. The rest of the supporting cast is strong as well, particularly Peter Sarsgaard as a messed-up small-time hustler/drug addict and Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s suspicious wife.
But throughout what is technically a very alluring yarn, I kept feeling as though I had seen this material before. The “wow” factor of the aforementioned Scorsese pictures is missing, if for no other reason than gangster films are, generally speaking, not fresh anymore. Director Cooper even uses voiceover narration from some of Jimmy’s henchmen, exactly the way Scorsese used Ray Liotta’s narration in “Goodfellas” – the young apprentice fascinated with the big bad world of organized crime. And the tight brotherly bond of South Boston boyhood friends? Clint Eastwood covered that material in his 2003 drama “Mystic River.” Coincidentally, both “Black Mass” and “Mystic River” feature Kevin Bacon in supporting roles.
Now before you chastise me for believing there will never be another magnificent film about gangsters, remember if it hadn’t been for “12 Years a Slave,” my favorite picture of 2013 was David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” Why? Because the scam artists played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams were (a) not mafia, and (b) fresh and new characters. Plus the smartest person in “American Hustle” was a woman (Adams) and the funniest person in “American Hustle” was a woman (Jennifer Lawrence).
I don’t have that sense of freshness with “Black Mass,” although I can’t discount it as fine entertainment. In fact, I liked it enough I’d like to see it again. But unlike “American Hustle” and the Scorsese films, I don’t feel the need to own it.
This review also appears on ArtsChannelIndy.com.