Black Mass recounts the incredulously true story of south Boston's most notorious criminal kingpin and leader of the feared Winter Hill gang, James 'Whitey' Bulger (Johnny Depp) and the exploits he committed while he was under FBI protection 'acting' as an informant. James Bulger agreed to the 'alliance' as it was called because it was a way to eliminate his mafioso enemies up north with minimal risk to himself and his gang. James was going to use the FBI to fight his battles for him while he took control over everything.
This "alliance" was thought up by FBI agent and south Boston native John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who James went out of his way to protect when they were kids growing up together. So when John sees an opportunity to help James out, he does so, but as we all know, it's the thin edge of the wedge. James' younger brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a state senator, and so between John working in the FBI and Billy in state politics, James is in a pretty safe spot. Although admittedly Billy does do his best to stay out of James' business, but it's guilty by association, or by blood in his case.
However after the FBI are able to shutdown an influential and significant section of the mafia in the area that was led by the Angiulo Brothers, John is seen as a hero in the FBI because this 'alliance' was all his idea and the pivotal intel came from James. This 'victory' gave John and James a rather brazen attitude until the corruption and the perversion of their informant relationship could no longer be ignored. After all, once the mafia is out of the way, who do you suppose the FBI would go after next? The next biggest fish, that's who. Of course the fact that John had helped James keep up the ongoing protection status fraudulently didn't help either, blinded by his sense of loyalty to James, all while he was knowingly walking the plank.
I will say that the sets, locations and wardrobe all seemed authentic and genuine to the time periods and places they were in, all suitably bland and drab. It felt like south Boston in the 70s and 80s, at least as far as I know anyway. Black Mass had an extremely strong ensemble cast too, so the acting elevated this movie far beyond what it would have been without them.
Johnny Depp was good as James Bulger, though not as memorable as he should have been. The makeup didn't bother me either, although it did seem a little bit inconsistent. Sometimes his eyes were normal and then other times he looked like he was on acid. Juno Temple added a bit of quirky innocence and fun to the movie in her small role, she definitely left an impression in more ways than one.
Even with all that talent on set there was simply no spark or energy to the movie, but I don't blame the actors, I have no doubt that they did all they could, I blame the director and the writers who were clearly in over their head. The screenplay was a mess, although I read that there were lots of cuts and edits that were made to the movie, and the constant rewrites to the script as well, maybe that's true and maybe it isn't, but I sure felt like there was some truth to those claims. The pacing was consistently lethargic and tedious, but I wont say it was boring because it wasn't. I immediately got the impression that Black Mass was going to be a more restrained and subdued mob movie, which is fine by me, but it just didn't pull me in. The weak score didn't help it much either. It did set a dreary, ominous and almost haunting tone from the onset, but it was forgettable after that.
Black Mass was a relatively entertaining movie, but it was sorely lacking a more taut and coherent screenplay and experience behind the camera as well. There was no emotional core to the movie or to the characters themselves, we get some extremely brief insights into James, but we get very little insight into any of the other characters, if at all. It takes a strange kind of skill to make a mob movie about such a multi-layered, complex and colorful character like Whitey Bulger and make it anything less than riveting, but they succeeded. Black Mass felt perfunctory and pedestrian in the mob genre, two things a mob movie should never be. I finished Black Mass feeling like I only knew marginally more about James Bulger than I did going into the movie, and I don't know shit about James Bulger, still don't really.
Written by - The Sentry - 23/02/2016