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Johnny Depp ponders his next criminal misdeed in Black Mass.

On some level, I can’t help but feel sorry for Black Mass. This movie gives off every sign of wanting to be very serious and important: the large canvas, the 2-hour-plus running time, the A-list cast, the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi that seems allergic to anything that might look pleasant, the music by Tom Holkenborg, a.k.a. Junkie XL, who scores this like it’s a Wagnerian opera. Even the title itself proclaims this movie as straining to be some epic American tragedy. Yet aside from Johnny Depp’s presence in the lead role, this is a deeply ordinary mob film that accomplishes nothing that Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas didn’t do better 25 years ago, and it also doesn’t come close to earning the weightiness that it wants so desperately.

The film is based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss, exposing the sordid details about this real-life case. Depp portrays James “Whitey” Bulger, the leader of the Winter Hill Gang in Irish-American South Boston. They’re minor players in the crime world until 1975, when Whitey’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Massachusetts state senator, is approached by FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who used to run with the Bulgers when they were kids in Southie. With the bureau more interested in shutting down the Italian-American mafia in North Boston, John sniffs an opportunity and brings in Whitey as an informant. Everyone wins under this corrupt bargain — Billy is insulated from his brother’s crimes, John advances his career, and Whitey gets to watch the FBI take down everybody who’s a threat to him. The only catch is that Whitey isn’t supposed to kill people or run drugs. He does not hold up his end for long.

The real-life Bulger inspired the final plot twist in Scorsese’s The Departed, another better movie about the mob. The current movie is in the hands of Scott Cooper, whose successful debut, 2010’s Crazy Heart, is now starting to look like a one-off. His direction here is woefully uninventive and tediously paced. The film is chockablock with terrific actors working on their Boston accents: Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard as a coke-addled hit man, Kevin Bacon as an FBI higher-up suspicious of Connolly, Corey Stoll as a U.S. Attorney who blows the lid off the operation, and Adam Scott as an agent who basically stands around looking skeptical whenever John says something. None of them are given much of a chance to make an impact, especially when they’re saddled with lines like “What’s Bulger done? Everything!”

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This is a vehicle for Johnny Depp, and just when everybody else was ready to write him off, he comes storming back. Where he was lush and demonic in Sweeney Todd, here his evil is sleek and vampiric, his icy blue eyes glowering underneath a bald cap. Depp’s eccentric mannerisms, which were threatening to overwhelm him, are mostly gone, replaced with a deadly focus that breaks only occasionally for sarcastic attitude, as when he gives a derisive salute to the police during a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

This is great as far as it goes, but all the filmmakers can think to do is to give him scene after scene of similar villainy, whether he’s ordering a hit on an executive in Oklahoma, threatening John’s disapproving wife (Julianne Nicholson) under the pretense of checking her for illness, or strangling an inconvenient prostitute (Juno Temple) and forcing her stepdad (Rory Cochrane), one of his own lieutenants, to take part in the murder. The subplot depicting the early death of Whitey’s only son is intended to humanize him and balance out all this evil, but it doesn’t come near doing the trick.

Whitey is a psychopath from beginning to end, so what are we left with? The story of John, a guy dumb enough to believe in honor and loyalty among this gang of crooks. (As the movie’s framing device shows, pretty much everyone in Whitey’s gang winds up ratting on him, no surprise when the top guy is himself a rat.) Edgerton is an actor who remains stubbornly flat and unable to do any but the one American accent that he has. The role probably needed a smaller-statured actor to help explain why John worships Whitey. Edgerton misses the neediness and ravenous ambition in the character. Even if he’d been better, the movie would still have John looking more like a deluded ninny than a tragic hero. It’s just one of many ways in which Black Mass aims for grandeur and misses embarrassingly.

 

[box_info]Black Mass
Starring Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton. Directed by Scott Cooper. Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book. Rated R.[/box_info]

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