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BLACK MASS Review: Depp’s Fantastic Performance Lifts Familiar Narrative

My Rating: [usr 3]

Johnny Depp rivetingly brings back his A game in a much needed return to form playing real life James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass. Despite the fact Scott Cooper’s film is a little too by the numbers, there’s no question this is one of Depp’s best performances to date.

Do you need a welcome reminder that Johnny Depp can still act? Than the 52 year old’s latest magnetic, totally convincing performance as Whitey Bulger in the new crime film Black Mass is that reminder.

Depp is such a big movie star, and like most movie stars we tend to forget sometimes, that when properly motivated, they can be quite good. Depp’s enthralling performance is by far the best thing about director Scott Cooper’s well made, but overly familiar film. Think Martin Scorsese lite.

The narrative of Black Mass, while getting the job done, doesn’t feel fully formed or developed. There are some individual scenes that are truly excellent and crackle with tension, but the plotting doesn’t really build to anything substantial — it’s a story that basically focuses on all the sordid and monstrous dealings of Whitey Bulger.

While those dastardly dealings are interesting, it doesn’t have the same heft of an epic tale of a criminal’s rise and fall. It feels much like a Cliffsnotes version of Bulger’s life, compacted into a relatively short 2 hours (in terms of epicness) that’s more easily digestible, rather than something more complex and truly disturbing. We only get glimpses of that sadly.

As a purely straight-forward biopic though, again, Black Mass does work. It’s one of those biopic movies framed in series of extended chronological flashbacks that is meant to give us the highlights of Whitey Bulger’s life. While entertaining, it does have that ESPN effect on Whitey Bulger’s story. While Depp is great, he is helped by a perfectly capable cast lead by Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, and Dakota Johnson.

So, in the final analysis, Black Mass is not the next great American gangster film or anything approaching that. It’s Oscar chances will solely be on whether or not Johnny Depp will be nominated for Best Actor — and that’s where the main focus of this film should be on, because it is a performance that deserves to be nominated.


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