Anyone who has seen Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990) knows exactly what to expect when they sit down to watch a gangster film. The main character will be relatable, funny and likable one moment and cold-hearted and murderous the next. Killings will be abrupt, even casual, and paired with clever, callous dialogue, usually accompanied by at least a few overhead shots of old-school cars breaking the emptiness of urban wastelands. “Black Mass,” released Sept. 18, does not hesitate to indulge in all of these gangster movie genre tropes that have captured the attention and imagination of moviegoers for decades.
Directed by Scott Cooper and based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s 2001 book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob,” “Black Mass” tells the story of real-life gangster and South Boston icon, James “Whitey” Bulger. The film capitalizes on its source material and Whitey Bulger’s unique place in Boston lore; the cast makes sure to exaggerate the Boston accents, and Bostonians may spot some familiar locations on the screen, as the entire movie was shot in and around the Boston area.
Unfortunately, the film’s unique qualities end there. The plot moves along at a good pace — it never lags, and there are some well-placed laughs here and there. But many key scenes never quite hit their mark, thanks mainly to a lack of energy in the dialogue and, in turn, the performances in general. As a result, “Black Mass” can sometimes feel more like an exercise in the gangster genre — going through the motions and hitting quotas — than a real gangster movie like “Goodfellas.”
Johnny Depp as Bulger, with thinning blonde hair and wrinkled skin, does what he does best: look nothing like himself and not much else. There is very little variation to his performance. His low, sardonic gangster voice and intimidating stares become repetitive by the film’s third act and fail to add adequate depth to the film’s more emotional scenes, leading to missed opportunities to truly get into Bulger’s mind. It’s not that his performance is bad — it does have its shining moments — but, in the end, Depp’s acting is nothing viewers haven’t seen before.
Joel Edgerton is decent as corrupt FBI agent John Connolly but, again, fairly one-sided. It is Jesse Plemons, as close Bulger associate Kevin Weeks, who delivers one of the more memorable performances in “Black Mass.” Established as a strong supporting character in the very beginning of the film, Weeks unfortunately drops off the map as the plot progresses. This incomplete arc is reflective of a broader flaw in the film — an overload of characters who are never fully developed.
Indeed, the filmmakers make sure to cram in lots of familiar faces — Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard and Adam Scott (of “Parks and Recreation” (2009-2015) fame) to name a few — but, in the end, these characters all blend together. They serve to move the plot along, but, more often than not, they create confusion rather than complexity. Other gangsters enter the story seemingly for the sole purpose of providing Bulger with someone to kill, and as a result, “Black Mass” is filled with lots of scenes where suspense feels manufactured more by the soundtrack of deep, foreboding piano and strings than by anything truly at stake in the story.
One of the most forgettable performances of the film, surprisingly, comes from recent Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch, whose turn as Billy Bulger, Whitey Bulger’s brother, was so brief that it seemed to be included more as an obligatory biographical fact than as a meaningful part of the narrative. It could be that director Cooper bit off more than he could chew with Bulger’s story, struggling to add real-life details rather than sticking to the bread and butter that gives great gangster films true substance and depth — simple plot lines stemming from complex character motivation.
Overall, “Black Mass” could be a decent pick for those already familiar with or interested in the story of Whitey Bulger or simply itching to see another gangster film. While Depp’s performance may not stand up to all the hype, it is still worth seeing for fans of the versatile actor. However, moviegoers looking for the next great, Oscar-contending gangster film should not get their hopes up — even though “Black Mass” will please anyone looking for the visual staples of the genre, it fails to do much beyond simply going through the motions.