Wednesday, September 16, 2015

“Black Mass”–Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new crime drama “Black Mass”, starring Johnny Depp.


When a gangster agrees to be an FBI informant, can either he or the agent he works with trust each other despite the fact that each as known the other since childhood?


Growing up together in South Boston, Jimmy Bulger (Depp) and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) understood the meaning and value of friendship and loyalty.  Despite this, the two wound up following drastically different paths in life:  Connolly became an FBI agent and Bulger chose a career as a hoodlum, spending years in prison before returning to his hometown where he continued to pursue a life of crime.  With the Mafia becoming increasingly successful on the north side of town, the FBI is feeling humiliated and frustrated as they can stop neither the Italian-led group nor the Irish gangsters, headed by Bulger. 

This gives Connolly an idea:  what if he reached out to Jimmy, his childhood pal, to see if he’d be interested in helping the FBI take down the Italians?  Connolly approaches Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), Jimmy’s brother who’s now a State Senator in Massachusetts, and is officially rebuffed.  Nevertheless, Jimmy gets word of the offer and decides to meet with Connolly.  As much as Jimmy hates rats – he’s certainly killed enough of them himself – he agrees to help Connolly because it would be good business:  in this zero-sum game, if he brought down the Mafia, his own gang would only prosper. 

Over the ensuing years, Jimmy’s brutal hold over his fellow Southies only becomes stronger – and yet, Connolly is being heavily criticized at the bureau because his main informant has not been forthcoming with useful information about his Italian counterparts.  When Connolly informs Jimmy their little arrangement is in danger of terminating, he finally provides the FBI with some concrete facts which eventually leads to the mob crumbling.  Now, with both Connolly and Jimmy excelling in their chosen professions, can they maintain their trajectory or will their ambition wind up doing them in? 


One of the reasons why Johnny Depp has been among this country’s great actors is due to the fact that he winds up losing himself in many of his roles; while some might say Depp is really allowing his make-up to do most of the acting, such a comment greatly ignores the nuances – some more subtle than others – that he brings to his widely-varied characters.  In “Black Mass”, Depp again submits himself to the process and truly becomes Bulger; looking in the eyes of Depp’s Bulger, it is hard to believe that there is actually a human being somewhere deep inside that psychopath. 

While Depp’s performance is certainly sufficient to recommend “Black Mass”, there are some misgivings about the movie that cannot be ignored.  For one thing, there is the script – specifically, the dialog.  At the risk of sounding prudish, the screenwriters drop so many F-Bombs into the script, viewers might think they’re watching any given episode of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan”.  Clearly, they are doing this because they want to make their characters appear to be tough guys; most likely, this is due to the fact that they don’t trust their own screenplay to portray these men as tough, regardless of their language. 

Another problem can be cited with the directing; specifically, Scott Cooper seems to be trying to invoke Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”, based on selection of music (and when it’s used) and use of the camera (both in its positioning and movement).  “Black Mass” pales in comparison to that Scorsese classic and Cooper only winds up doing a disservice to his own movie by forcing so many similarities to be readily recognized.  All of that said, “Black Mass” is worthy of a viewing, although it may never go down as being a classic gangster film – despite being based on a true story.

Black Mass (2015) on IMDb

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