“It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it, and who you do it to or with. If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
The underworld boss of South Boston for decades. On the run and on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for 16 years. The inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed. The subject of the awesome documentary, Whitey: United States v. James J Bulger. It was only a matter of time before a man this notorious got the biopic treatment. It almost seems to write itself. And it was that inevitability that made me a little reluctant to actually see the results. But I guess even the threat of a by the numbers, predictable and hackneyed execution wasn’t enough to keep me from eventually seeing the Whitey Bulger story get the Hollywood treatment. Because I just caved in and watched Black Mass.
In 70s Boston, Whitey Bulger’s (Johnny Depp) Winter Hill Gang controls all of the crime the city’s south. When former local boy, now FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) returns to town, he immediately tries to combine and exploit his childhood friendship with Bulger, Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his role within the FBI. Making Whitey an official informant, John is able to take down a gang with links to the mafia, who also happens to be the Winter Hill Gang’s only real rival in Bean Town.
It’s clear from the outset that Whitey is gaining more from this relationship than John. With regular tip offs, Bulger is able to avoid prosecution from the authorities and any attacks from his enemies. Out of a twisted sense of loyalty to the streets that he grew up on and the codes that rule them, John is quickly and easily manipulated by Whitey, sometimes knowingly, sometimes inadvertently, helping solidify the crime lord’s power.
I went into Black Mass expecting a Whitey Bulger movie starring Johnny Depp. I was also expecting a by the numbers, predictable and hackneyed execution. But what I got was something a lot different and a lot more entertaining. What I got was an ensemble piece, built around Whitey, and John Connelly, and Billy Bulger, and a few other key henchmen and FBI agents.
If anything, this is Joel Edgerton’s movie, not Depp’s. I’d say they get about the same amount of screen time, but Edgerton uses his to act everyone else off the screen. It’s good to see Johnny Depp back as a proper actor, playing a real, believable person instead a of a cartoon character lost in costumes, affectations and make up. But as good as Depp is, Edgerton’s John Connolly is the character I find myself thinking about a whole lot more as I write this review.
Black Mass came with a lot of anticipation and expectations, then it opened and almost immediately faded away. I don’t remember hearing any terrible reviews or ecstatic raves. Everyone just seemed kind of underwhelmed. But I think the movie deserves more than that. I also think it was just sold the wrong way. Like I said, it was sold as a Whitey Bulger movie starring Johnny Depp. And as long as you don’t go in expecting that, I think Black Mass is a way above average, well executed ensemble, true crime drama.