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Black Mass: A Familiar Gangster World of Gamy Characters, Whackings And Splattered Brain

The other side of the law is populated, as usual, by colorful thugs with rougher faces and thicker accents

  | February 26, 2016 10:18 IST
<i>Black Mass</i>: A Familiar Gangster World of Gamy Characters, Whackings And Splattered Brain
  • Genre:
    Crime Drama
  • Cast:
    Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, Sienna Miller, Dakota Johnson
  • Director:
    Scott Cooper
Currently a permanent guest of the federal government after more than 20 years as a fugitive, James J. Bulger was, in the 1970s and ?80s, Boston?s most notorious criminal. While his younger brother William served as president of the Massachusetts Senate, James (referred to as Whitey, although he disliked the nickname) ran the Winter Hill Gang, an especially vicious enterprise in a business not known for delicacy. He also enjoyed a cozy relationship with the local office of the FBI, which turned a blind eye to his crimes in exchange for information about the activities of his rivals.

He was a government informer who meted out lethal punishment to suspected rats; a remorseless killer viewed as a folk hero by some of his fellow citizens; a sentimental son of South Boston who brought drugs into his own neighborhood, and his story all but begs for a movie. Some elements of it have already made it to the screen. The Departed, Martin Scorsese?s remake of a classic Hong Kong crime film, incorporates aspects of the Whitey Bulger legend. ?Whitey,? Joe Berlinger?s solid documentary, looks squarely in the faces of his victims and their families, dispelling some of the aura of gangster romance that always seems to surround white ethnic practitioners of organized crime.

Black Mass, Scott Cooper?s new film, puts some of that luster back. It?s not that Cooper necessarily set out to portray Bulger as a charismatic anti-hero whose actions are both appalling and exciting. (The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth is based on the book by the reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O?Neill of The Boston Globe.) His protagonist, played by Johnny Depp and called Jimmy by most of his friends and associates, does terrible, unforgivable things, nearly all of which the real Bulger actually did. But the conventions of popular culture, conventions to which Cooper hews with slavish or perhaps unthinking devotion, treat those things with a certain reverence. This guy is evil, but you have to admit he?s also kind of cool.

I?m not really raising a moral objection here. I have seen Goodfellas and the Godfather movies more times than I can count, and I?m as susceptible as any other deskbound, conflict-averse fantasist to the visceral appeal of a good gangster movie. But Black Mass isn?t one. Cooper?s direction is skillful, if overly reliant on borrowed Scorseseisms (especially when it comes to music), and the cast is first-rate, but the film is a muddle of secondhand attitudes and half-baked ideas. It feels more like a costume party than a costume drama.

Depp, with sweptback silver hair, a dead front tooth and a grayish complexion offsetting icy blue eyes, gives Jimmy a vampirish air. He sips ginger ale from a bottle while his colleagues down shots and pints of beer, and speaks in a fierce whisper. He is nice to old ladies on the street, devoted to his mother and brother, and shows himself to be a doting (and then a grieving) father. The contradiction between this apparent soft side and his general disregard for human life feels less like an insight than like boilerplate, a clich? to set alongside the splattering of brains against car-window glass, the surprise whackings of guys who thought they were on their way to whack other guys, and the invocations of loyalty.

Not to mention the scenes of men in suits slamming their hands on desks and yelling at one another. Black Mass pivots between the streets and bars of Southie and the FBI offices at Government Center, where Jimmy?s boyhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) has set himself up as the scourge of the Italian mob while also serving as Whitey?s inside man. Edgerton?s hotblooded strutting and shouting contrasts intriguingly with Depp?s chilly reserve, but Connolly remains a one-dimensional character, a garish bad apple in a barrel full of mostly honest but fatefully credulous lawmen. (His office mates and superiors are played by Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and David Harbour as John Morris, who follows Connolly down Whitey?s rabbit hole.)

The other side of the law is populated, as usual, by colorful thugs with rougher faces and thicker accents. (Hey, guys, can we give Boston a rest as a crime-movie backdrop, and maybe try Chicago for a while? I say this as a former resident of both cities and a longtime fan of the letter R.) The episodic narrative is framed by testimony from some of Jimmy?s former underlings, who turned on him when a new prosecutor (Corey Stoll) came to town. Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks, Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi and W. Earl Brown as the slow-moving hit man John Martorano are all credibly gamy and mean, and the matter-of-factness of their testimony is the best, most honest part of the movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays William Bulger with a slyness that makes you wish Black Mass had delved deeper into the mysteries of blood and power. And the appearance, at the margins of the story, of Julianne Nicholson (as Connolly?s wife, Marianne), Dakota Johnson (as Lindsey Cyr, the mother of Jimmy?s son) and Juno Temple (as Deborah Hussey, a young victim of Whitey?s paranoia) exposes the limitations of the film?s angle of vision on the world its characters occupy. We?re in historically masculine genre territory, of course, but this movie?s collection of mothers, wives and mistresses is especially threadbare. More boilerplate.

It?s possible, though, to think of the shortcomings of Black Mass as fitting comeuppance for Bulger. He may have thought he was a big deal, but in the end all he merits is a minor gangster movie.

Production Notes:

Directed by Scott Cooper
Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth
Based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O?Neill
Director of photography, Masanobu Takayanagi
Edited by David Rosenbloom
Music by Tom Holkenborg
Production design by Stefania Cella
Costumes by Kasia Walicka Maimone
Produced by Cooper, John Lesher, Brian Oliver, Patrick McCormick and Tyler Thompson
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
With: Johnny Depp (James ?Whitey? Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Rory Cochrane (Steve Flemmi), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), David Harbour (John Morris), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Julianne Nicholson (Marianne Connolly), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire), Corey Stoll (Fred Wyshak), Peter Sarsgaard (Brian Halloran), Adam Scott (Robert Fitzpatrick), W. Earl Brown (John Martorano) and Juno Temple (Deborah Hussey)

Black Mass is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Explosive profanity, exploding heads

? 2015, The New York Times News Service
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