Black Mass

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Johnny Depp (left) and Joel Edgerton chewing up scenes together.

Of course Johnny Depp would do this movie. He gets to wear make-up, do a funny voice (well, if you consider a Boston accent “funny”). It’s just a shame that as good as his performance is, you never stop thinking – hey, that’s Johnny Depp with about as much make-up caked on his face as Edward Scissorhands. He looked like a vampire and John Waters had a baby. Every few scenes, I’d wonder who he reminded me of in that specific scene. Oh, there’s a bit of Ray Liotta. Ah, Depp is channeling Hunter S. Thompson again. Oh wait…he’s going old school and acting like Edward G. Robinson.

You’ll also think of Jack Nicholson. How could you not, when The Departed already covered this ground.

Director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) does a bit of cribbing from Scorsese movies, and that’s frustrating; yet The Departed was a disappointing picture and this one, despite its flaws, actually works.

Whitey Bulger (my new porn name) was finally caught a few years ago, and it’s interesting to see the story of this sociopathic mobster that terrorized South Boston.

The shots of the dingy towns was compelling. In period pieces, it’s fun to look at the parked cars. As I was checking out a cool GTO, my date leaned in and said, “That window says ‘Happy Holidays’ with a Santa Claus. I don’t think they were saying that in the ‘70s. Things weren’t so PC in the 1975.”

Turns out, she looks for those types of flaws in period pieces. The only thing I notice on storefronts…when the phone number says “555-1212.”

When we meet this thug in the mid-70s, it was great to hear the Joe Walsh tune “Turn to Stone” in a dingy dive bar [the all-time best use of Joe Walsh in a bar is when “All Night Long” is playing, and Scott Glenn beats the tar out of John Travolta in Urban Cowboy]. We meet the Winter Hill gang and watch as Bulger starts assembling his crew and going from being a small-time hood to a big-time mobster.

It was refreshing that, while we see the love he has for his wife, son, mother, and brother…it’s not like we ever find anything likable about him. When tragedy strikes, we don’t think that justifies anything this scum has done.

His wife (or girlfriend, not sure) is played by Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey). Her performance is solid, but she isn’t in the movie very long (no spoiler as to why).

His brother is played by the talented Benedict Cumberbatch. He nails the accent, but he brings a bit of baggage to the part. We watch him and Depp, and it’s like we’re watching talented actors doing a workshop. It’s much more fun to forget the actors and get involved in the characters, instead of admiring their accents or the job they did in the makeup chair.

We see Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott as FBI agents. Same problem. You’re tempted to laugh at the mustache Scott is sporting.

The talented and underrated Australian actor Joel Edgerton (writer/director/star of The Gift) and his accent works, and he’s the only character given an arc. It just feels like his character could’ve been toned down a bit. There were times his lies were so obvious, you wondered how dumb his colleagues were. In reality, that problem lies with the director.

The one actor that was perfect, and doesn’t have you thinking of his previous work, is  Corey Stoll (Ant-Man). When he joins the gang at the FBI, he’s baffled as to how Bulger has skated on so many crimes.

Since Bulger was an FBI informant, a lot of things he does have the Bureau looking the other way. That’s because childhood friend John Connolly (Edgerton) thinks Bulger is a valuable asset; or maybe it’s just because he’s a dirty cop that’s now on Bulger’s bulging payroll. Even his wife (Julianne Nicholson) starts to notice fancier clothes and watches.

Speaking of the wife, there’s an intense scene that everyone will rave about. Bulger realizes Mrs. Connolly is avoided him at a dinner party and he goes to her bedroom to “check on her.”

She’s obviously petrified, and it is great acting. The problem with it is this. We’ve seen these scenes in mob movies so often. In fact, the movie did a similar scene right before it. They’re enjoying steak, and Bulger insists an FBI agent tell him the secret family recipe the meat was marinated in. He starts out joking, but gets serious, while holding a knife. When the secret is spilled, Bulger seems irritated that the guy was quick to talk about “secrets.” The FBI agent gets nervous.

This was done brilliantly in Goodfellas, with Joe Pesci’s famous “You think I’m funny?” bit.

Another scene Black Mass used that needs to be retired…is where the vicious mobster picks up a scared person (Jesse Plemons). He insists he “Get in the car!”

The audience wonders how he’ll be whacked, and instead, he’s either brought into the gang or rewarded some other way.

It creates decent tension on film but has become cliché. In real life, why would you do that? Bulger saw how great a fighter this kid was. If he thought scaring him was a good idea, what would’ve happened if the guy, fearing for his life, just pulled out a gun and took them all out?

The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth could’ve been stronger. There were so many interesting areas that could’ve been explored with these characters and situations.

I was curious as to what protection informants are given. You wonder about a coked out criminal (played brilliantly by Peter Sarsgaard, who plays a completely opposite character in Pawn Sacrifice). If he has information that’s obviously important, and one FBI agent doesn’t want to use it…can’t other agents do something?

And since the picture made a detour to Florida for professional jai alai…I wondered who in the U.S. even cares about the sport. Other than gamblers in Tijuana, was that a portion of the film that was necessary? Rumor has it, they edited out scenes with Sienna Miller that have Bulger as a fugitive. That should’ve stayed in the film, and jai alai cut out.

Director Scott Cooper got an Oscar for Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, and he’s going to get Depp a nomination for this (he won’t win). It’s a little frustrating that he made a movie that started with the usual – flashbacks during interrogations…to an ending that’s the usual – the list of charges and jail sentences each character was given.

The pattern also needed to be mixed up a bit. The film played like this: piss off Bulger, get whacked. Don’t make a deal with Bulger, get shot or beaten. Prostitute yourself (fun scene with Juno Temple) and get caught…and chew bubble gum and twirl your hair while Bulger is asking what you told the cops…get strangled (Oh. Spoiler Alert).

It all got a tad monotonous.

Instead, I’m wondering why Bulger didn’t drink or smoke. I’m wondering why he doesn’t have a woman in his life after the ‘70s.

Show us what Bulger’s motivation is.

The movie gets an extra star for an amazing soundtrack. Nothing like hearing a rare Joe Walsh gem, as well as a Rolling Stones song you don’t normally get (Slave), and album cuts from Blondie (War Child), The Allman Brothers, and a forgotten classic by one of the best ‘60s bands ever – The Animals (Don’t Bring Me Down).

The film was filled with flaws, but ya know what? It held my interest and was better than expected.

If you don’t mind bloody violence and mob movies are you’re thing…you should get to the theatre. Nothing like the air conditioning on days like this.

I’m giving it 3 stars out of 5.

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