Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Review: Black Mass (2015)

Black Mass (2015)

Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use

Score: 4 out of 5

Black Mass isn't one of the great crime dramas or gangster biopics, but it is a well-made film that, above all, provides a good late summer/early fall actor's showcase. More than anything, however, it will likely keep Johnny Depp's career from flying completely off the rails following his last few years of questionable roles. Even the man looks next to nothing like the real Whitey Bulger, he still pulls off a commendable performance as a crime boss who, while rarely the biggest guy in any room, can still probably kill you without blinking an eye. Combine that with the dark mood lent by the direction and cinematography, and you have a film that, while fairly slow, is still a treat for fans of any of the actors involved.

The film is a biopic of the rise and fall of James "Whitey" Bulger, a Boston gangster who, between 1975 and 1995, rose to become one of the most powerful criminals on the East Coast. He accomplished this largely through collaboration with a corrupt FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Bulger's who covered for his crimes during his rise to power, initially using Bulger to help take down the Italian Mafia in Boston but later becoming close pals with him, obstructing the FBI's investigations of him, and even leaking the identities of informants to him. Given that this is all based on a true story (specifically, based on the book written about Bulger by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill), it's pointless to really warn about spoilers, as anybody with an interest in the subject matter knows how it ends.

Where this film works, then, is in how it tells that story and makes it interesting. Director Scott Cooper is mostly riffing on past crime dramas from the likes of Martin Scorsese, but even though he doesn't bring much new to the table, he does successfully recycle many of those same tropes for his own story. Bulger's South Boston is portrayed as a dark, gritty place, with an oppressive mood that suggests bad things going down. The film only actually shows us Bulger's crimes in moderation, but when they do happen, they are brutal. Also working in the film's favor are the performances Cooper is able to get out of his actors. This movie boasts an all-star cast, but one man is clearly first among equals: Johnny Depp as Bulger. He is powerful, menacing, paranoid, and possibly crazy, able to command the presence of the room with only a few words, more than enough to make up for the fact that the makeup work done to make Depp look like the actual man is fairly iffy all around. It's a remarkable turnaround for an actor who, just this year, was embarrassing himself in crap like Mortdecai. His days as an A-list superstar may be behind him, but this film should definitely at least salvage his career and respectability in smaller-scale, more artistic endeavors. Joel Edgerton makes for a perfect partner for him as John Connolly, an all-around sleaze whose willingness to bend the rules in order to bring law-breakers to justice causes him to form alliances with even bigger crooks -- which slowly destroys his life as he grows willfully blind to his friend's moral failings. Really, the whole cast is excellent, from Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey's strait-laced brother Billy who gets caught up in his actions to Julianne Nicholson as John's wife Marianne who grows increasingly estranged from her husband over his relationships with criminals, even if the Bawstin accents weren't the greatest. Depp and Edgerton, however, are the anchors around which this film revolves, and they knock it out of the park.

(And speaking of the accents, I have a theory as to why so many modern crime dramas are set in Boston. Not only does Massachusetts offer generous tax credits, it's also a setting where you can make a film about cops and robbers and have the entire cast be white. Not only does this give you a much wider pool of A-list actors to draw from for the cast, it also means you can make a movie about crime and police work without having to explore the sort of racial tensions that require a very deft hand to pull off without looking foolish. At best, you get Do the Right Thing, American Gangster, and The Wire, but when you try to tackle that subject matter without the intelligence needed to pull it off, you get Crash.)

This movie wasn't perfect. I was willing to forgive it for not being a particularly original film, especially compared to The Departed (which was itself heavily based on Bulger), but at times, this film can be fairly plodding. It does quickly get moving before it can ever get honestly boring, but this is still a pretty slow movie that honestly felt longer than its two-hour run time. Also, the Miami scenes notably did not ring true for me in the slightest. It was obvious that those scenes were shot in Massachusetts (specifically, they dolled up Revere Beach to look like Miami Beach), and there was little, save for the card reading "Miami Beach" and the palm trees, that really suggested that the setting was all that distinct from Boston, where most of this film took place. It was a point where this film's otherwise excellent presentation suffered a major crack, and as someone who lives in Florida, I could tell that that was not Florida.

The Bottom Line:

It's not a classic, and it's fairly derivative, but it's still a very well-made crime drama that excels on the backs of two great performances by Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton. I wish I got around to seeing this sooner, so that I could tell you to see it when it wasn't ending its theatrical run. Oh well, check it out when it hits VOD, then.

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