Film Review | Black Mass

Does Black Mass manage to revitalise Johnny Depp's career? Doubtful, but it remains a not-bad take on what Goodfellas started back in the 90s

No time for prayer: Johnny Depp takes a menacing, though not exactly career-revitalising, turn as Irish-American gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in this suspenseful and thorough true story
No time for prayer: Johnny Depp takes a menacing, though not exactly career-revitalising, turn as Irish-American gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in this suspenseful and thorough true story

The legacy of Goodfellas (1990) is long and illustrious. Martin Scorcese’s true-story account of how an informant brought down a criminal empire stands as a ground-breaking example of the crime genre. Inspiring the likes of Quentin Tarantino and countless other imitations of varying quality, the fast-paced, ironic vibe of the film did plenty of work to demystify the American criminal underworld, while its rock-and-roll spirit lent it a dynamism that’s difficult not to like.

In short, it’s a formula that can hardly fail – at least on paper. Appealing to both the shallow impulses of the mafia genre – violence and power-pornography – as well as mining deep to unravel both the rich psychological and political (with a small ‘p’) underpinnings of the thing, Scorcese accomplished nothing short of powerhouse storytelling.

Of course, Hollywood would never let a formula that good slip through its fingers before it’s pulped to death like many an unfortunate character falling foul of its rabid mafiosi.

And so now we have Black Mass. Similarly based on a true account about the downfall of a criminal empire “from the inside”, and similarly filmed in a way that ratchets up the suspense and menace of its unsavoury characters, Scott Cooper’s film could be better… but it’s also not among the worst Goodfellas knock-offs out there.

While his brother Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch) remains a powerful leader in the Massachusetts Senate, Irish hoodlum James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) continues to pursue a life of crime in 1970s Boston. Approached by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the lawman convinces Whitey to help the agency fight the Italian mob. As their unholy alliance spirals out of control, Bulger increases his power and evades capture to become one of the most dangerous gangsters in U.S. history.


I launched with a preamble about Goodfellas, but the fact is that the (re)appearance of Johny Depp on the big screen is what flared up most of the marketing hype ahead of Black Mass’s release. It’s not that everyone’s – formerly, perhaps – favourite sex bomb-cum-eccentric has been away from our cinemas for all that long… just that his once-untouchable role as the cult weirdo du jour appears to be fading.

And much like his frequent collaborator Tim Burton – in point of fact, the director responsible for ossifying Depp’s on-screen image in ‘quirky’ 2D – attempted to claw out of his swirly, kid-Gothic pigeonhole with the relatively sober biopic Big Eyes (2014), so Depp now ditches the weird hats and weirder accents in favour of a flesh-and-blood personage.

But Whitey Bulger is not your garden variety character – hell, he was never even a garden variety criminal to begin with. Though much is made of how certain mobsters can be somewhat likeable – or at least compelling enough to convince – Bulger cleaves far too close to out-and-out villain territory to ever register as anything other than a menace.

So in essence, the casting of Depp is hardly a ground-breaking, career-redefining step. With his ice-blue eyes, scraggly teeth and pale, abundantly-freckled skin, Bulger is nearly as much a grotesque as Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands. Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily – the last thing the world needs is yet another ‘sympathetic’ mobster appealing to our base tendency to valorize scumbags – and costuming and makeup aside, Depp does his job capably enough.

Less impressive is Joel Edgerton’s John. Presumably our protagonist throughout the course of the film, his dogged loyalty to Bulger is never quite fleshed out in a satisfactory manner. Granted, one doesn’t expect pat answers from real-life, psychologically complex characters, but what happens is that we’re left with something of an enigma from our protagonist, and not a very compelling one at that.

In adapting Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s account of Bulger’s rise and fall, the least screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth could have done was suggest at motives more specific than simple community loyalty.

If anything, perhaps a different viewpoint character would have made things a little bit fresher. God knows there’s plenty of candidates to choose from: like David Fincher’s comprehensive and exacting Zodiac (2007) – which also has a gradually unspooling investigative structure – Black Mass is an embarrassment of riches in terms of the sheer size of its supporting cast, with some quasi-A-listers even turning up for simple cameos (Juno Temple is a case in point).

But however flawed, this remains a solid enough crime drama. It’s not quite Goodfellas of course but then again, what is?