I genuinely love organized crime stories. The politics and maneuvering with entities outside of the organization–and within the organization, the planning and forethought that goes in to any long-term organized venture, and, of course, the merciless violence of a good ol’ fashioned mob war. Whether it is actual history or fiction, books or film, I just love the genre. So when I saw the trailer for the film Black Mass so many months ago–and what an incredible trailer it is–I immediately added the title to my “must-watch” list.
Based on a true story, the film stars Johnny Depp as the infamous mobster and fugitive, James “Whitey” Bulger, Joel Edgerton (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”, “Warrior”) as FBI agent, John Connelly, and Benedict Cumberpatch (“The Imitation Game”, “War Horse”) as Massachusetts state senator, Billy Bulger. It takes place on the streets of South Boston, between 1975 and 1985, ten years after now-notorious “Whitey” Bulger is released from federal prison for armed robbery and truck hijacking as part of the Winter Hill Gang. In the film, Italian mobsters from North Boston are trying to expand into Bulger’s territory, so “Whitey” devises a plan to become an FBI informant and use the feds to, in his words, “fight our war for us”. From that point on, the film is largely focused the relationship between “Whitey”, his politician brother, Billy, and agent John Connelly–and the ways those relationships affect their individual interpersonal relationships with others.
Johnny Depp gives a stellar performance in this film, and I am no big fan of Johnny Depp. Probably due, in no small part, to the makeup, hair, and wardrobe department, I honestly found myself at times forgetting I was watching Johnny Depp. It probably also helps that I don’t really have any idea what a South Boston accent sounds like, but it sure sounded good to me. I would not be at all surprised if Depp gets a major award nomination for his work on this one. And I think it will be well-deserved.
Unfortunately, the acting and makeup are the high points of the film. With a setting time period that extends 10 years, the movie does not have enough time to properly develop the intricacies of what I enjoy from the organized crime genre. The war between the Winter Hill Gang and the Italians is portrayed more as character development than as something important to the plot, the consolidation of power over the South Boston rackets and World Jai Alai is almost an afterthought, and the violence is gratuitous, with many of Bulger’s murders seemingly meaningless to the greater story. This just was not the type of mob movie I was hoping for.
Ultimately, my disappointment with Black Mass is based on my preconceived high hopes for what I thought it could have been. It is still worth watching, if only for the marvelous acting, but I would advise saving the price for theater admission and popcorn and waiting for the DVD. This certainly isn’t the type of film that demands a big screen, but you’ll definitely want to wait until the kids are asleep.