In ‘Black Mass,’ Depp set loose to wheel, deal, and whack

18 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Black Mass’ review: Johnny Depp is chilling as real-life gangster.

There’s been much talk about , mostly surrounding Johnny Depp, his incredible transformation into Boston drug lord James “Whitey” Bulger and how this film could potentially get him a nod at the Oscars for Best Actor.Propelled by a raw and primal performance by Johnny Depp, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass will have you barricading your doors and hiding under the bed after seeing this corrosive gangster film.The story of James “Whitey” Bulger — the Irish mob kingpin who strangled and bludgeoned and cheated his way to the top of Boston’s underworld — did not end when, tipped off to impending FBI indictments, he fled the city in 1995.Can an outstanding performance send people racing to the box office if the role is housed in a lengthy and wearisome movie? “Black Mass” is as promising as they come, with Johnny Depp stepping out of his ho-hum fantasy comedies.

Hounded by a string of critical and financial failures, his box-office clout has been severely diminished, though he’s remained popular despite the films he’s chosen and the roles he’s played. But does the film itself—which centers on Bulger’s reign over the Boston drug world and his decades-long alliance with the FBI—live up to the hype that surrounds Depp? “Johnny Depp finally gets back down to some serious business in Black Mass,” he writes. “Long-time Depp fans who might have lately given up hope of his doing something interesting anytime soon will especially appreciate his dive into the deep end here to personify genuine perfidy in the guise of legendary hoodlum James ‘White’ Bulger.” He adds, “Depp’s instinct for observing, underlying and keeping things in, then letting it all out when required, pays big dividends… Bulger and since he was not particularly a great fan of the book…and many of the other books written about him, I got a beautiful response through his attorney that said Mr. Whatever your thoughts on The Departed or The Town—the modern Boston mob/crime thrillers that all modern Boston mob/crime thrillers are measured against—it is undeniable that everyone involved was deeply invested in both. Matt Damon had been waiting his whole life to play a character like his Departed rat; I likewise have zero doubt that Mark Wahlberg recites his Departed dialogue and flexes into the mirror when he’s alone at night. (The Town is a series of shots of Ben Affleck shirtless and a bird’s eye view of Boston that happen to be occasionally interrupted by a terrific thriller; it’s the movie Affleck must have daydreamed himself starring in in middle school.) You can tell that these movies are profoundly felt by the participants, and it leads them an authenticity that can’t be faked.

Bulger, of course, is the infamous Boston gangster who spent a dozen years on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and almost two decades on the lam, before being arrested in 2011 in Santa Monica. And it feels like such a shallow presentation of its subject that it doesn’t even provide a comprehensive detailing of its events, thus making it useless as an instrument for educational cheating. The film, directed with exceptional flair and elegant concision by Scott Cooper, even comes from Warner Bros., the studio that specialized in psychopathic monsters played by such stars as James Cagney and Edward G. Cooper’s movie, adapted from the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, wisely assumes the audience knows this already, and begins at the end, as Bulger’s cronies give him up in exchange for reduced sentences.

Black Mass is a massive disappointment.” “There’s a scene in the film (one of its best, actually) where Whitey has dinner with [Kevin] Connolly and one of his fellow feds, and gets the agent to reveal his family’s secret steak sauce recipe with such ease that it’s clear he can’t be trusted,” he writes. “Depp plays the scene to the hilt, purring with menace, grinning that dead-toothed grin until you almost can’t take it anymore.” However, he notes that it’s all too familiar to him: “He plays the audience like Toscanini. Joel Edgerton costars in the Scott Cooper-directed movie as John Connolly, an FBI agent who is also serving time in prison for various charges, including second degree murder, stemming from his close ties to Bulger. Whitey, at that point, was long gone, leaving behind him a trail of crime, destruction and bodies, as well as the tarnished political career of his brother, Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch), all of which he had created with the help of none other than the FBI. But when it’s over, you can’t help thinking that, as great as it is, it’s basically Joe Pesci’s ‘Funny how?’ scene from Goodfellas,” he writes. “That’s Black Mass in a nut shell.

Much of the production is based on fact, with not one but two monsters—the other being a corrupt FBI agent played by Joel Edgerton—dominating a horror show crossed with a morality tale. You can’t see his ugly dentures, breathtaking facial makeover and ice-blue contact lenses without gasping at the change — let’s face it, there’s not a film actor alive who is a bigger fan of character makeup than Depp.

Benedict Cumberbatch does his best to nail the Boston accent, and he does fine, sure, but there isn’t a second you aren’t 100 percent aware that he’s a Brit pretend to be a neighborhood Southie. Robinson.” “Scott Cooper’s is a big, brash, horribly watchable gangster picture taken from an extraordinary true story and conceived on familiar generic lines,” he writes. “Cooper and his screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth have something substantial to add to the genre: making the point that gangsters do not arise from nowhere like comic-strip supervillains. Bulger’s brother William “Billy” Bulger (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film) was a politician who became President of the Massachusetts State Senate.

Going against the advice of his boss (Kevin Bacon) and his colleagues (Adam Scott and David Harbour), Connolly gets closer and closer to his childhood chum, never seeing that Whitey is essentially a spider, spinning a web of viciousness and vindictiveness. They are the symptoms of political corruption, parasites created by agencies of the state, and by weak, credulous law enforcement officials who are content to sub-contract policing to the bad guys.” “[The script] includes some satisfyingly nasty twinges and shocks,” he adds. “[And] Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton both give richly absorbing performances of preening macho self-regard and self-delusion.” “Johnny Depp leads an impressive ensemble cast in this well-made story about not only Whitey Bulger,” he writes. “Depp’s Whitey Bulger is not his typical flamboyant performance, but instead a thoughtful character study of a frightening stone killer completely devoid of conscience.” Connolly grew up with Bulger and Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a straight arrow who’s his brother’s complete opposite and a Massachusetts state senator. He was forced to resign from office in 2003 by then-Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney after he admitted to using a payphone to speak to his brother when he was a fugitive.

You see here — while looking into Depp’s glassy shark eyes and his character’s utter lack of compassion — how Bulger could have been on America’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for years after he went into hiding in 1994. Depp plays Bulger, the Boston crime lord who was able to get away with his litany of crimes against humanity because he was an “informer” for the FBI. (He didn’t actually give them any real info and basically played them all for dopes; Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed is inspired by Bulger, too.) We meet a cavalcade of actors excited to hang around Depp when he’s not in Mortdecai Mode — some are Bulger’s henchmen (including Jesse Plemons, in a role that might have been larger at some point) and some are the cops out to get him (including an amusingly mustachioed Adam Scott).

It’s Connolly who sees a chance for self-advancement in forging an alliance with Bulger against Boston’s Italian-American miscreants on behalf of an FBI that has long been fixated on the Cosa Nostra. Over the next few decades — through cocaine and crew coups, through IRA gun runs and Megabucks chicanery, through at least one gang war incited by the biting-off of a man’s nose — Whitey took over, and ran, Boston crime. Essentially, he’s shooting more for Coppola than Scorsese, more for “The Godfather II” than “The Departed,” and the end result is somewhere in between.

Still, after his debut, “Crazy Heart,” which earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar, and the thriller “Out of the Furnace,” Cooper continues to grow as a filmmaker. Dakota Johnson, who might actually be the most natural, instinctive performer in the cast, plays the mother of Bulger’s son and has a scene that brings out the angriest, rawest emotion Depp has shown in years. Director Scott Cooper (who guided Jeff Bridges to a best actor Oscar in “Crazy Heart”) fills the opening with surreal shots of carnage that feel like the prelude to a solid underworld movie. Sure, there’s savage, unsavory violence, and no shortage of people who get shot in the head, but the movie has a sense of guttural grandeur to it, a seamy look at three men who came from nothing and rose as high as they dared before crashing to the ground. An inevitable question is how “Black Mass” compares with “The Departed.” That excellent film, released in 2006 and directed by Martin Scorsese, covered some of the same ground through an ingenious adaptation of an intricate and purely fictional Hong Kong crime thriller, “Infernal Affairs,” that had nothing to do with Bulger or his Boston haunts.

And though Jack Nicholson gave a marvelous performance as a fictional version of Whitey Bulger, it was a quintessential Nicholson performance, while Johnny Depp’s work here feels genuinely new. The FBI never seems like a credible threat to Bulger, and, as his childhood friend protecting him from within but feeling increasingly compromised, Edgerton never seems like a worthy enough character to invest much in. In many ways, though, that doesn’t matter so much, because the rest of the film, including Edgerton’s impressive turn, pales in comparison to Depp. Joel Edgerton gets loads of screen time as FBI detective John Connolly, a Boston native who set up the agency’s alliance with his boyhood pal Bulger, calling him “a top echelon informant” throughout his climb up the gangster ranks.

The actor plays Bulger as nothing less than a psychopath, a remorseless, arrogant predator whose humanity seems to ebb from him over the passage of time. Depp, though, is not same old sleepwalking star who has foundered in bad films lately (“Transcendence,” “Dark Shadows,” “Lone Ranger,” “Mortdecai” … let’s stop there). It’s a dark and chilling performance, and Depp commands every scene he’s in, his piercing eyes boring into whomever he’s speaking with, entirely aware of his ability to switch from charming and terrifying in a heartbeat.

Manipulative, strategic and absolutely monstrous, Depp’s Whitey is a worst nightmare, so high-functioning that his extraordinarily violent tendencies can only be recognized to those closest to him. As a man, that just took me away.” When Bulger killed Flemmi’s stepdaughter Deborah Hussey — she was deemed unreliable — he “looped a rope around her neck, tied a stick to the rope and twisted it until she choked to death.” On a spring day in 1982, while disguised in a “floppy hat and a long-haired wig,” he murdered Edward Brian Halloran and Michael Donahue by spraying the Datsun they were in with gunfire in the parking lot of the restaurant Anthony’s Pier 4. Corey Stoll growls a lot as a hard-line prosecutor determined to bring the Winter Hill Gang down and Adam Scott plays an FBI guy who … Sorry, I started losing track. It’s a completely transformative performance, and a strong comeback for Depp, who has been mired in movies like “Mortdecai” and “Transcendence” in recent years. “Black Mass” may not be quite on par with the epic gangster films of the past, but Depp’s performance is one for the ages. And if you’re going to make a movie about Whitey Bulger while an Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese is still fresh in our minds, you better have something new to bring to the table.

As did the filmmaking team, apparently, hiring Sienna Miller to play the woman who was Bulger’s lover for 30 years and then completely abandoning the subplot. It’s a shame to lose an A-lister like Miller, but the film’s version of Bulger has no visible libido, and the project is already crushed by excessive cast footnotes. Whitey successfully cultivated an image as a gentleman criminal: good to his neighborhood, loyal to his accomplices, an abider of the laws of the streets.

It hints that his beloved mother was no saint and mentions his volunteering for multiple LSD tests while in prison in the 1950s, but digging deeper into his background would have made this evil mystery man clearer. Characters float in and out of the narrative — there maybe just be too much cast for a story this spare — and it never builds up into the crescendo it needs to. In Scott Cooper’s debut feature, Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, a ruined legend of a country musician, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is Jean, a single mother who writes about music for a local newspaper. Yet, far beyond the impact of his physicality, Depp lets us into the soul of a human being who has chosen to strip away decency, empathy and the best elements of that humanity.

A Boston FBI agent named John Connolly, who had grown up in Southie’s Old Harbor housing projects idolizing him, was the one who protected Whitey for years. Cooper directs with an unerring instinct for intimacy and a flawless sense of proportion, whether in the big moments or the small ones; every performance is measured without seeming to be calculated. Depp has appeared as so many weirdos for so long that you feel a temptation to praise him just for playing a normal adult with a heart rate and shoes and a social security number.

Depp never really digs into what makes Bulger tick, what his motivations might be other than “be a magnetic psychopath,” and thus the movie never propels forward. Christian Bale’s Russell Baze works those of a mill in a Pennsylvania town where they’re still making steel, though not for much longer; heavy industry has been moving to Asia.

It’s just a camera pointed at a massive movie star doing another in his series of performance art pieces, and everyone sort of circling around him, partly cheering him on, partly not sure what exactly they’e supposed to do when standing next to him. Casey Affleck’s Rodney Baze, Russell’s younger brother, is back from the furnace of Iraq, and seethingly rageful; at one point he vents his rage in a scene of immense power. Mumble-mouthing his way from his native Hackney to somewhere near enough Boston Harbor, hand-combing his greasy hair back into place, Winstone nailed a sleazy, murderous heaviness.

Eventually, he’d go on TV to talk about the plot to kill Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr — a showy firebrand who’d go after both Whitey and his brother Billy with equal fervor — by exploding a basketball full of C4. After a report of a Whitey sighting at a showing of The Departed in a San Diego movie theater, authorities actually did search for a time, unfruitfully, in Southern California.

William Monahan had adapted the script for The Departed from the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs,1 which meant large swaths of the real Bulger legend were left untold. That includes arguably the most remarkable part: that, while Whitey was thieving and murdering, his kid brother Billy was rising to become Boston’s greatest political operator. Joel Edgerton plays John Connolly; Jesse Plemons — yes, Landry from Friday Night Lights — plays Kevin Weeks; and Rory Cochrane — yes, Lucas from Empire Records! — plays Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi. The trailers downplay Cumberbatch’s role, but considering the prominence of the actor, the peculiar relationship of Billy and his big brother Whitey should finally get some screen time. As Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy write in their book Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, “Gangsters with scruples don’t kill women, and Whitey insists to this day that he did not kill Debra Davis2 or Deborah Hussey.

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