In 1970s South Boston, FBI Agent John Connolly persuades Irish mobster James “Whitey” Bulger to collaborate with the FBI in order to eliminate a common enemy: the Italian mob. The drama tells the story of this unholy alliance, which spiraled out of control, allowing Whitey to evade law enforcement, consolidate power and become one of the most ruthless and dangerous gangsters in Boston history.
Johnny Depp has spent so many years playing dress-up for Tim Burton and Disney in various roles that most of us had forgotten the range of his acting skills. Although he shouldn't, he surprises us in 'Black Mass' with an immersive, impressive performance paying organized crime boss James 'Whitey' Bulger. It's just too bad that the movie around Depp isn't deserving of his performance.
Donning a skull cap, contact lenses, and teeth that will make you run to the orthodontist (Johnny hasn't lost his love for hiding under prosthetics), Depp plays Bulger as both a hardened criminal and a man with a code of honor. The balance here is pretty perfect...viewers will never fall in love with Whitey the way they have with lead characters in other mob-related movies, but they'll never hate him so much that they despise his presence. Depp's Bulger is fun to watch because you can tell he's always teetering on the edge between man and monster – so when he does explode, it's not so much a shock as it is a release of pent-up energy.
The movie is based on the book of the same name and focuses not on the many years that Bulger was in hiding, but the events that sent him on the run in the first place. In the late 1970s, Bulger is head of an organized crime group in Boston known as the White Hill Gang and one of the FBI's agents in Boston, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), not only knows Bulger, but was friends with him growing up. He talks his superiors into using Bulger as an informant to help bring an Italian-run crime syndicate in the city to justice. Bulger agrees to the deal, but insists he's not being a rat. Connolly makes him promise not to kill anyone...a promise every member of the audience knows will not be kept.
It's obvious that Director Scott Cooper has seen one too many Martin Scorsese movies, as 'Black Mass' tries to be a poor man's GoodFellas, but never has the energy or the flow to even compare to Scorsese's classic mob hit. All the pieces are in place, but other than Depp, the performances here sort of fall flat. The movie is loaded with some great character actors, but they aren't given a whole lot of interesting things to do by the screenwriters.
Cooper's movie also does a pretty poor job of conveying why exactly Connolly bends over backwards to protect Bulger, even when it's obvious that it's going to destroy his career. Is it loyalty? Does he think it's his ticket to a more prestigious position? Is it the lure of being involved in crime? We're never quite sure...and Edgerton plays Connolly like an incompetent schmuck most of the of time, which certainly can't be true of the real man, who was a distinguished agent by the time he started working with Bulger as an informant.
If Connolly's motivations are illusive, the same can also be said – at least to some degree – about Bulger. Why does he do what he does? Why (other than the fact that he's pretty brutal) does he invoke so much loyalty from those near him and fear from those outside his circle? As good as Depp is here, what really makes Bulger tick is never truly examined. It also would have been nice to have seen what happened to Bulger when he went on the run. I guess since not a whole lot is known about those years, the movie doesn't want to speculate – but the film really has a feeling of a story that ends when it really should be reaching its mid-way point (Bulger's arrest is shown at the very end of the movie in a quick sequence, but his years on the run are skipped over).
Still, even with all the story problems, 'Black Mass' is worth a look just to see Johnny Depp actually act again...it's been too long. I don't think this performance comes close to the one he gave in the outstanding Donnie Brasco, but he's extremely watchable here, and for that reason – if for few others – this title is worth a look.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Black Mass' shoots its way onto home video in this Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack. The dual-layer DVD and 50GB Blu-ray are housed inside an eco-friendly Elite keepcase along with an insert containing a code for an UltraViolet digital copy of the movie. A slipcover with artwork matching that of the keepcase's slick slides overtop. Both the DVD and Blu-ray contain front-loaded promos for Warners' 'DVD to Digital' program and Warner Bros. on HD, but surprisingly the Blu-ray contains no movie trailers. The DVD, on the other hand, also includes a front-loaded anti-tobacco ad, as well as trailers for 'Batman v Superman' and Creed. The main menu has the standard Warners' design, with a still of a menacing looking Johnny Depp/Whitey Bulger with his arms crossed and menu selections running horizontally across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is region-free.
'Black Mass' was shot on film using the Arriflex 235 camera and is presented on Blu-ray in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, opened ever so slightly (and visually indistinguishable) from its 2.35:1 theatrical exhibition. The color of the movie has been saturated in such a way to give the look of a film that may have actually been shot in the 1970s (when much of the storyline takes place), although without the heavy grain or dirt we'd see in an older film. In fact, the image here does such a good job pushing the grain into the background that it almost looks more like a digitally shot movie than one shot on 35mm. However, the soft look and often out of focus backgrounds reveal that indeed one is watching a title shot on film.
Details here are remarkably good, and black levels are strong and inky – quite helpful as there are a lot of dimly shot scenes in the movie (both at night and otherwise). I looked hard, but could find no issues with aliasing, banding, or pixilation/compression issues. 'Black Mass' won't be the best-looking movie one sees on the Blu-ray format, but this transfer is a good rendering of the filmmakers' original intent.
The primary audio is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that is more than sufficient for a movie that spends a lot of its screen time with characters just standing around talking to one other. The rears aren't used so much for directionality or immersiveness – of which there is virtually none – but rather to amp up the soundtrack as well as some of the ambient noises surrounding the actors when called for (as when meetings take place at a bar, club, etc.). However, there's not much 'oomph' when the track tries to come alive, and when a popular song is part of the soundtrack, it doesn't nearly pack the punch one might hope for. Still, the mix here seems to be properly done – this just isn't a very 'showy' movie in terms of audio. I detected no issues with dropouts, muddiness, or lack of distinction between voices and sounds.
In addition to the lossless English track, 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also available in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. There is also an Enlgish 5.1 Dolby Digital Descriptive Audio track. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Johnny Depp does a great job in 'Black Mass', but it's not enough to save the movie, which is one of the more plodding mafia films to come along in a while. It's hard to say whether it's the fault of the screenplay or if Director Scott Cooper wasn't up to the task, but the result is a film with a lot of scenes that prove watchable, but none that prove memorable. Still, Depp's performance alone warrants at least one viewing. Worth a look.