"Black Mass" Review

Title: Black Mass
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Genre(s): Drama
Rated: R (For brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use)

The story of James “Whitey” Bulger is one of such massive disbelief, that over the years many who have heard it assumed that it is nothing more than an urban legend. The fact that Jack Nicholson's character from “The Departed” was based off of it has probably added to the mystique of the story. I'm sure the FBI would prefer that people think of it as an urban legend, rather than one of the biggest blunders in the branches history. Now the story has been brought to the big screen in “Black Mass,” and it is told with not only the kind of bloody violence you'd expect from a story like this, but it also, in a strange way, almost plays out like a parody.

This is not because Johnny Depp is playing Whitey either. Though he does wear lots of makeup, he is virtually unrecognizable in many of the scenes he is in, and so brutal in some of his murders, that there is no trace of the quirkiness Depp usually brings to his roles. This is a transformative performance where Depp truly gets to shine as the character actor he really is. So how does the movie play out almost like a parody? The reason is mainly because the FBI's handling of the situation is so flawed, so unorganized, so doomed from the start to succeed, that only in a Monty Python sketch could you normally find such incompetence in the midst of a grand plan.

Everything starts when an old friend of Whitey's named John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) joins the FBI, and there is pressure on him to bring down the mafia. The mafia just so happens to intrude on Whitey's territory from time to time, so Connelly offers Whitey a deal: Give me information on the mafia, and the FBI will turn a blind eye on any activity you find yourself in, so long as there's no killing involved. Whitey is not a rat, but in his eyes there is no harm in giving information to the FBI about other people. For him, this is less of a situation that involves snitching on your enemy and more of a case of letting your enemy fight your enemy…while one of those enemies are protecting you.

See, it's sort of funny when you stop and think about it. Still, much like reading funny “facts” about North Korea and realizing they have access to nuclear weapons, Whitey is still a criminal at the end of the day, and you realize quickly this is a dangerous man who has very powerful people protecting him. Not only will the FBI not make a case against him, but he has a congressman for a brother named Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), so it's safe to say he's got his bases covered. His bases are covered so extensively that he has no problem shooting a couple people out in the open, even when there are witnesses on the street.

What ended up making this situation embarrassing was that when the smoke cleared, Whitey got away with way too much for giving the government so little information. The film even argues that most of the information he gave the FBI was information they already had. Information they could have used much earlier had someone bothered to look for it. I understand this is not comforting news that the one of the most powerful government organizations could be so careless (especially in this day and age), but there you have it. So “Black Mass” plays out like an adrenaline rushing parody, but the movie also shines in the quiet moments where Whitey is just being a human.

Bad man though he may be, he does have a son he loves, a mother that adores him, and he treats all of his neighbors with the utmost respect. There's even a moment where he tells his men to pull over while they are on their way to a meeting, all so they can get out of the car and help an elderly lady put away her groceries. These are the acts that make real life neighbors of his still remember him with fondness and admiration. Its small moments like these, coupled with Depp's great performance, that makes “Black Mass” stand out from some of the other gangster films we've seen this year. The film was directed by Scott Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges to his long overdue Oscar in “Crazy Heart.” I think there's a very good chance he can do the same for Depp with this film. It's one of those rare times when art and performance is perfectly blended and complement each other to create something special. While “Black Mass” on a whole may feel overly familiar at times, there are more than enough moments to make it stand out from the rest.

Parents, there is strong language and strong, bloody violence. There is no sex however. Recommended for ages 17 and up.