Johnny Depp Can't Save Aimless "Black Mass"

Johnny Depp is fine in buzzy Boston crime saga “Black Mass.” The actor approaches the role of real life gangster James “Whitey” Bulger like a serial killer that stumbled into Sam Malone’s Cheers, putting a broad, gestural spin to a performance that hinges as much on blue contact lenses and heavy makeup as it does on acting ability. It’s a far cry from the star’s career-best turn in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” but he’s consistently interesting in the part. If only the same could be said of the movie around him.

With a deep supporting cast and “Crazy Heart” director Scott Cooper at the helm, the project was expected to be a confident if not revelatory take on a tale that’s become gangster movie shorthand. Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” was loosely based on Bulger, as was a key character in Ben Affleck’s “The Town.”

But instead of staking its own claim to the notorious mobster and his Winter Hill Gang, instead of drawing further from the richest of mob movie springs, Cooper’s film is content to trace. Whether frittered away on paper or in the editing room, the end result is a mélange of undercooked characters with nothing to say and nowhere to go.

Producer Mark Mallouk and “Edge Of Tomorrow” scribe Jez Butterworth share scripting duties, clumsily biting off a decades-long chunk of Bulger’s life while inexplicably ignoring his formative and later years – arguably some of his most intriguing. Backstories are mentioned in passing, characterizations often limited to physical appearance.

The movie’s framing device – latter day prison interviews with members of the Winter Hill Gang – is even less effective. These scenes provide no insight into anyone’s psyche, ultimately disallowing any inferences viewers might make about the nature of Bulger and his crew. They’re all presented in the most simplistic light possible, as generic as the movie they inhabit.

“Black Mass” isn’t even sure who its villain is. Bulger’s atrocities aside, the big baddie of the story might be FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a crook who not only allowed Bulger to run wild, but encouraged it. Connolly’s loose alliance with his target is the only story strand here given any depth, hinting at the most pathetic kind of hero worship possible, extending back to the characters’ childhoods.

But Edgerton – like the rest of the supporting cast – is shorted on screen time, outfitted with a spoon for digging where a shovel was required. The same goes for Benedict Cumberbatch as William, Whitey’s younger brother and US Senator. The notion of a respected public figure covering for his homicidal, drug-smuggling brother is a fascinating one, but it’s barely touched on. Cumberbatch gets less than 10 minutes of screen time.

As actors drift in and out – Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, and Juno Temple – so does the film, languishing in passivity. In a better film, the lack of meaningful female characters would make for a regrettable footnote. Here, their one-dimensionality isn’t all that different from that of their male counterparts, making “Black Mass” an equal opportunity waster.

The movie only sparks in its handful of Depp monologues, the highlight being an amusing but pointless dinner table intimidation of Harbour’s character. It’s a blast in the moment, but has little effect the story at large.

The same emptiness is felt in the way Cooper stages the pic’s violence. He executes the death scenes with a disturbing kind of reverence, which might have worked but for a complete lack of suspense. Instead, we’re left with scenes of murder and mayhem that look good in the film’s trailer but flatline in context. How do you make violence seem dramatic in a world where it was casual, borderline nonchalant? If you’re Scott Cooper, you don’t.

On top of squandering a stacked cast and a goldmine of inspiration, “Black Mass” is just watchable enough to ensure that no one will take another crack at Whitey Bulger’s fascinating life story anytime soon. It’s a tale that deserves worlds more than what Scott Cooper and company give it here, wearing out the source material’s welcome. Even a post-prime Johnny Depp deserves so much more than to be marooned in a lonely, candy-less game of trick-or-treating – one where the trick is squarely on the audience.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: September 18, 2015
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Scott Cooper
Screenwriter: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Juno Temple, Adam Scott
MPAA Rating: R (for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use)