Published on November 18th, 2015 | by Padraic Coffey0
Black Mass review: A disappointingly ordinary film
Just as Universal dominated the horror film genre in the 1930s (with movies like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy), Warner Bros. cornered the gangster picture. The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties – all stemmed from the same studio, and brought gun-toting tough guys of Chicago and New York to a global audience. It was fitting that Warners delivered what many consider to be the definitive mob movie with Goodfellas in 1990, but Black Mass, their dramatised take on notorious ‘Most Wanted’ gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, has more a touch of stagnation about it. Remarkably, so many years after Martin Scorsese’s opus, long-established tropes are wheeled out as if they were a fresh or cliché-free take on a familiar story.
The admittedly well-executed (no pun intended) trailer for Scott Cooper’s film has Bulger, played with waxy prosthetics by Johnny Depp, stare intensely at an associate, veiling his threats through passive language. Just at the moment the perp is ready to soil himself, Bulger explodes with laughter, though an air of menace hangs over the scene. This would all be a lot more effective, of course, if we hadn’t seen an almost identical exchange between Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in Goodfellas a quarter of a century ago. Provocative dialogues aren’t the only thing Black Mass shares with other crime films. Nor does one have to go back to the standards of Scorsese or Coppola to see from where Cooper draws his influence.
Films like Killing Them Softly and American Hustle, both released within the last five years, tread similar territory to Black Mass in an arguably more interesting manner: the bruising fisticuffs, the incessant machismo, the painfully-aware Seventies costumes and hair cuts. Of course, the film to which most will compare Black Mass is The Departed, which won Scorsese an overdue Oscar. Though adapted from the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs by William Monahan, Scorsese injected a healthy dose of Boston Irish flavour to the story of Frank Costello, who was Whitey Bulger by any other name. What is striking in recalling The Departed after seeing Black Mass is the extent to which Monahan clearly deviated from the story. There were no cell phones or comparable tech at the time Whitey Bulger used an insider at the FBI to cover his tracks and evade prosecution. Tellingly, and regrettably, it is Monahan and Scorsese’s heavily fictionalised version of Whitey Bulger that made for a much more interesting film, as well.
In the central role (though Joel Edgerton’s crooked agent may have more screen time), Depp is good, but saddled with an underdeveloped screenplay. His Bulger is little more than a one-dimensional sociopath, either ordering or delivering the execution of his allies with brisk efficiency. Attempts to add shade mostly fail, as in his unconvincing affection toward a child he has fathered with one of his girlfriends. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Whitey’s brother Billy, a leading Massachusetts Senator, though his rare take on an American accent is all that marks him out of the ordinary. Julianne Nicholson is given a role we’ve seen umpteen times before (notably to Anne Heche in a superior Johnny Depp gangster film, Donnie Brasco), the wife worried her husband is being indoctrinated into the world of criminality.
One of the more interesting aspects of Bulger’s life was his association with Irish republican paramilitaries, which including the funnelling of thousands of weapons and rounds of ammunition, some of which were intercepted. Indeed, his rational behind co-operating with the FBI is it will help bring down rightful enemies, like “the Brits in the Six Counties”. At one point he meets with Joe Cahill, a prominent member of the Provisional IRA, played with a wavering Ulster accent by Dublin-reared Billy Meleady. Had Black Mass focused more on that aspect of Bulger’s life – instead of the trappings of extortion, murder and betrayal – it may have made for a more compelling thriller.
Ultimately, for a man who led an undeniably fascinating life – funding political violence, having a brother in one of the highest political offices in the state, co-operating with the FBI while breaking every law he could – Black Mass is a disappointingly ordinary film.
Black Mass is released in the UK and Ireland on 27th November.