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Black Mass Review

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As gangster films go, Black Mass is certainly an interesting addition to the cannon of colourful portrayals of violent psychopaths carving out their niche in the criminal underworld. It offers the same staples of energetic beatings, bloodied corpses, FBI informants and twitchy paranoia. That Black Mass is based on the true life villain James ‘Whitey’ Bulger makes it all the more engrossing but there are flies in the ointment here that unfortunately hinder it, keeping it just below the rank of its Scorsese-led predecessors.

 
Frustratingly the best performance in the film is also the worst thing about it in terms of how it affects your viewing. Johnny Depp’s always been a magician when it comes to raising his performance so that he’s never overshadowed by costume, rather enhanced by it and sadly here it’s impossible to overcome. Playing as close to the real man as he can, his brown eyes are now Bulger blue, coupled with his discoloured and lopsided front teeth and receding hairline, but the change is so alarming that you find yourself looking at the transformation more than being lost in the man. It simply doesn’t suit Depp which is a shame as he nails the character completely, giving a natural pared back performance that is ultimately lost within the makeup.
 
We first catch up with Bulger in 1975. A local gangster who’s done time in Alcatraz, he and his Winter Hill Gang are making headway in the violent turf war for South Boston against the Italian mafia. A violent psychopath who fried his brain cells on LCD experiments (for the CIA) while in prison, Bulger is a ticking time bomb of violence and the film follows his ascent to crime lord thanks to his “alliance” with the FBI and local agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
 
 
The violence when it comes is brutal and bloody. This is not a pretty film and the swollen faces of his beaten cohorts are reminders of how unglamorous being a hoodlum really is. Jesse Plemons (who played the chilling Todd in Breaking Bad) gives a standout performance here as Kevin Weeks one of Bulgers gang. He is a dead eyed killer here too and brilliant for it. Rory Cochrane (Argo) too is great as Steve Flemmi, Bulger’s right hand man. Joel Edgerton has the more difficult role, and is terrific as a man lost somewhere between his hometown idol and his flourishing career. Edgerton plays it low key, letting Depp take the spotlight and it pays off for him.

Puzzling though is the role of Whitey’s brother Billy, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Is it possible to actually miscast Cumberbatch?  He and Depp bring a different sort of energy to the room making it hard to believe for a second that they’re family. Other supporting turns that thankfully deliver in spades are Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s girlfriend and mother of his son, Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll as the guys looking to bring Bulger down by the book and Julianne Nicholson who plays Connolly’s wife and has one of the most chilling scenes of the film with Depp.
The film is laced with great stand out dramatic scenes and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) works with a tight script and a great true story but in striving to follow the path of other great gangster movies, it falls short of new things to offer visually. Ultimately fans of gangster movies will enjoy but they may need to see past Depp’s transformation for it to deliver the right punches.



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The Movie Bit: Black Mass Review
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