Johnny Depp is James “Whitey” Bulger: notorious Boston gangster, FBI informant and confidant of childhood friend/Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Benedict Cumberbatch plays Whitey’s politician brother with Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson and Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons rounding out a stellar cast.
One of many crime epics to be set in Boston in recent years along with The Town and The Departed, Black Mass aspires to be in their mob – a violent, captivating gangster drama similar to Martin Scorsese’s seminal Goodfellas. A widely publicised sequence (prior to the film’s release) where Whitey goads a dinner guest about his cooking bears more than implicit similarities to the Joe Pesci/Ray Liotta exchange where Pesci’s Tommy DeVito famously calls out the film’s protagonist for laughing at him, demanding to know why he finds him “funny.”
As entertaining as it is, with accomplished performances from each cast member and a satisfyingly riveting turn from Depp, Black Mass might have done better as a mini-series or documentary, as it struggles to tell too long and great a story for a regular feature length film.
Juggling multiple plot strands and dropping too many, Bacon, among other actors, is underutilised in an attempt to depict the whole of the Bulger drama.
Characters are introduced in the third act (notably House of Cards’ Corey Stoll) just to move the story along, with transparent deus ex machina moments souring so much of an otherwise great screenplay, including the almost parodic two-scene entry of investigative reporters toward the end of the film.
Edgerton is reliably superb as the agent obsessed with his childhood friend – a whole film could have been built around him and his mania (which is sadly underexplored), focused on his actions within the FBI, keeping Depp on for shock value and an arguably greater impact in a more selectively-scripted role. Alternately, Bulger is an interesting enough character to command a feature length film on his own, focused on his exploits and keeping the presence of the FBI to a minimum.
There are two great narratives in this film, Bulger’s and Connolly’s and despite the calibre of the cast, in trying to do justice to both we have been left with an entertaining, incomplete and in many senses, underwhelming story.
Black Mass is in cinemas now.