Black Mass Review - Johnny Depp's Comeback? Not Quite

[LFF 2015] A brief respite before more Cap'n Jack.

Rating: ˜…˜…˜… The headlines were written from the moment set pictures of Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger first appeared. Black Mass was Depp's comeback, a return to form after a decade of silly voiced variations on the same camp caricature. He'd become insufferable to the point where nobody in their right mind could defend, so this was a chance to make those "Greatest Ever Actor" claims from the early naughties not seem utterly ridiculous. This became such an accepted fact that the film arrived in US cinemas (and now here in the UK) declared as such before anyone had actually seen it. Clearly the desire to have a narrative to Depp's career and the wider timeline of filmmaking is more important than the movie itself. Oh, don't get me wrong - this is Depp's best performance in a good long while, despite being hampered by some make-up that makes him look like a cartoon character when put alongside the rest of the cast. But Black Mass as a film isn't great. It's a leaden trotting out of the Goodfellas gangster film model that offers up a few new ideas and performances, but never does anything that exciting.
Now there is some stuff that really works; a Hans Zimmer-style score (from the German's sometimes partner Junkie XL) adds a real sense of epicness to the film and 70s-through-90s Boston is recreated with little fuss - none of the CGI sweeping shots to show this is a different time you'd expect. It's a film that's a few alterations away from being pretty good in many respects, but there's just too many sloppy moments. The biggest mistake actually stems from Depp's portrayal of Jimmy (don't call him Whitey the film tells us in a bid to reinforce how we're going behind the curtain), although I'd put the blame more on the script he was handed. Bulger is a psychopath, a murderous crimelord with a hypocritical approach to everything, from how to pull off a murder to what the definition of an FBI informant is, yet periodically we get a scene trying to show how normal or nice he is. It's desperate and unnecessary, adding moral duplicity where none is needed and going against the film's central idea that Jimmy's the bad guy.
Thankfully, Bulger isn't the total focus. A sizeable amount of time is spent on the journey of John Connolly, an FBI agent and childhood friend of Bulger who offers an alliance to the criminal with the Bureau that goes totally against plan, and it's there you get the unique spin on gangster tropes; it's the common cop/criminal mirroring trick, but with much more overt parallels than we're used to. Here Joel Edgerton continues his rise from mediocrity (seriously, did you guts see The Gift?) with a performance of unexpected descent that, when it comes down to it, rivals Depp's slurring villain. In fact, the surrounding cast are all solid, even if there is an evident lethargy in knowing they're part of a "comeback" vehicle; the only weak link is Dakota Johnson, who brings the same subtlety (and personal ticks) as Anastasia Steele to Bulger's wife, although she is thankfully and unexpectedly dropped halfway through. The ensemble really elevates the whole, making Black Mass work in spite of its glaring tonal faults, even if it doesn't come close to matching those pre-release hype titles. Look, feel free to call Black Mass Johnny Depp's return to form. It isn't, but if you want to hide from the fact he's now just out for the money go right ahead. Although it won't last long - in the next two years he's reprising both the Mad Hatter and Captain Jack Sparrow. And, given how he's been on this track since 2003, that is really his form now. Seen as part of the London Film Festival 2015.
Black Mass is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas from 27th November.
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Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.