Film review: BLACK MASS, from ‘Built For Speed’

Black Mass dramatises the rein of crime boss James ‘Whitey’ bulger who ruled South Boston from the mid-70’s until the 1990’s. His story is told largely through flashbacks as Bulger’s (Johnny Depp) former associates spill the beans on his disturbing life of crime. The film reveals Bulger’s involvement in multiple murders including brutal vengeance on those he suspected of betraying him, collaboration with the IRA and his disturbing alliance with the FBI who recruited him to help them combat the Italian mob. With a veritable green light from the Bureau, Whitey went on a crime spree which (according to the film) included brutally despatching anyone who stood in his way.   The story focuses as much on ambitious FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who became Bulger’s handler, as on Bulger himself. Connolly was friends with Bulger’s older brother Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and had known Whitey as a child on the streets of South Boston. Connolly’s position became increasingly precarious as Bulger’s criminal power grew and the monster he had helped unleash became unstoppable. As a story of violent organised crime and police corruption in Boston, Black Mass will inevitably draw comparisons with The Departed. With its examination of the relationship between a bent cop and a major crime figure, though, it will also remind Australian audiences of Underbelly and the 1995 Sydney crime drama Blue Murder.

Black Mass is a strangely uneven film. It’s dotted with some very impressive moments but it fails to unite these into an entirely satisfying story. The best moments involve Depp’s mannered but still convincing depiction of Whitey’s ultra-violent yet calculated criminal methods. With slicked-back receding hair and gleaming eyes that recall those of a hungry Count Dracula, Depp makes Bulger a supremely sinister figure even when he’s engaging in quiet conversation. Every moment he’s on screen bristles with tension as he broods over his next kill.

Unfortunately, director Scott Cooper is unable to imbue the rest of the film with this riveting tension or with genuine excitement. There’s little sense of momentum as the film is really just a series of vignettes consisting of Whitey’s killings and FBI office arguments interspersed with slow patches. Too often it feels as if we’re watching someone trying to emulate Scorsese but failing to inject the film with the pop cultural energy that makes Marty’s films so thrilling. Cooper also doesn’t manage to convey the scope or the mechanics of Bulger’s criminal operation anywhere near as successfully as Scorsese does with the mafia in films like Goodfellas.

There are also questionable casting choices here. Joel Edgerton doesn’t quite connect as John Connolly and it’s as if he’s not sure exactly how to play him. At times Edgerton plays Connolly as a serious and tragic figure compromised by his misguided belief in neighbourhood loyalty while at other times he’s more like a comical buffoon with his Elvis pompadour and shoddy policing methods. Edgerton’s forced Boston accent doesn’t help either. Kevin Bacon, who plays Connolly’s boss Charles McGuire, is also strangely unconvincing, his demonstrative performance makes him seem like something out of a 70’s cop show parody. The supporting performances are generally strong, particularly Rory Cochrane as Bulger’s main henchman Stephen Flemmi but too many people flit in and out of the story without fully establishing their character. Benedict Cumberbatch is oddly underwhelming as Whitey’s brother, Senator Billy Bulger who, strangely, never seems to be under any suspicion despite his brother being a major crime figure.

Black Mass doesn’t entirely hold together but its best most moments are very effective and it provides Depp with an opportunity to claw back much of the acting cred he had relinquished in a string of ridiculous recent performances.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Crime.

Classification: MA 15+.

Director(s): Scott Cooper.

Release date: 8th October 2015.

Running time: 122 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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