The Real Depp Returns in ‘Black Mass’

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Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass.

James Mason, Features Editor/Critic

Welcome back Johnny Depp — the actor. I think I speak for everyone when I say we missed you. It’s been too long since you legitimately acted in a movie. For the last decade or so we’ve had to sit through you playing dressup (Mordecai, Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger). In fact, the last truly good role you played was Sweeney Todd, and as hard as it may be to believe, that was eight years ago. Hopefully now that you’re back, you’ll continue to do more challenging roles like this. And no, trying to do as many Pirates movies as possible doesn’t count as challenging (unless you’re watching them).

It’s without a doubt that Depp’s presence is the main reason to see Black Mass. Afterwards, I was reminded of when I saw Dallas Buyer’s Club. Both fact based movies seem to rest squarely on the shoulders of their leading men and how good their performances are. The good news– Depp is utterly watchable. The bad news– there’s not a whole lot else to see here.

Black Mass is based on the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp), who was a small time criminal in South Boston in the 70’s (roughly when the movie is set). Bulger agrees to being an FBI informant for his childhood friend and FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), in order to rise up in the crime ranks. He tips off Connolly on what’s going on, and as a result, he pretty much gets a free pass to do whatever he wants, since Connolly agree to ignore all of Whitey’s crimes (under the exception of no murders). And if that wasn’t strange enough, Whitey’s brother, William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), just happens to be a Boston senator.

The fact that all of this happened is almost unbelievable, since it already sounds like a movie. And I think that’s where the main fault lies. It almost seems unbelievable, but only because it really happened. If this all never happened, it would read like any other generic mob movie, and probably would’ve never been made. We’ve already seen the low-level mobster trying to rise up in the ranks. We’ve seen corrupt cops making bad deals before. We’ve seen what happens to the secondary characters who try to rat on the mob. One scene in particular involves a couple of the mob guys sitting around having dinner when one of them accidentally offends Whitey. It’s a tense scene and very well acted, but as soon as it was over I realized it was almost the exact same as the “funny how” scene from Goodfellas. There really isn’t a whole lot new here.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. The 70’s scenery has a slick look to it, and the entire cast is great. Yes, this is Depp’s show, but he’s not the only guy in this. Black Mass actually has a surprisingly big cast, which ordinarily isn’t a problem, except a lot of them only get two or three scenes making them feel superfluous. For example, it took me a week to remember that Kevin Bacon was in it. His performance wasn’t bad, but he’s in and out so quick it’s hard to remember he was even in it. It’s the same case for Jesse Plemons, Dakota Johnson, and even Peter Sarsgaard, who really deserved more time than he was given. Hard to say this is really a flaw, but it’s something that’s hard to look past.

At the end of the day, Black Mass is a by-the-numbers mob film. But Depp is in top form here, and Black Mass is worth seeing because of him.

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