Can Johnny Depp still surprise us? After all these years, all those earrings, all that “Yo ho ho,” can he still deliver, as an actor?
The answer that “Black Mass” gives us is “Yes.” As Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger,” he never gets the “Southie” accent. The contact lenses that render his eyes gunmetal grey never cease to startle.
And truth be told, this character is never much more than Jack Nicholson in “The Departed,” Jack-lite, just as the movie lacks the artistry and Scorsese tension to be anything other than “Son of the Departed.”
But within moments of his arrival on the screen, Depp makes us forget that’s him underneath the slicked back white hair. He becomes this monster of monsters, a mobster who reminds us that there’s nothing glamorous about “Thug Life,” nothing romantic about stone cold criminals who turn their limited intellects toward the illegal, whose sole “code” is self-preservation.
That’s not the way F.B.I. Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton of “The Gift”) sees this world. A fellow Southie boy “who made good,” he figures “blood, honor and loyalty” are what matter the most in life. So he approaches his old friend with a proposition.
“We all need friends, Jimmy. Even you.”
Jimmy/Whitey, a cold-blooded killer and low-rent Southie hoodlum, will be an informant for the F.B.I. He’ll help them fight “the REAL enemy,” the Mafia. Or as the Feds and mobsters alike call them, “the Wops, the Dagoes.” Hey, they’re just making the world safe for Micks, right?
That’s in 1975. Thus begins Bulger’s rise, climbing up over the bodies of his rivals — some of whom he kills, some of whom the Feds take down, perhaps thanks to his inside information.
Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) delivers the doubters — Kevin Bacon is the F.B.I. boss who questions Bulger’s value (his intel was useless) and wonders what deal with the Devil they’ve made. Adam Scott plays another agent cowed by Connolly’s insistence that Bulger is their savior.
Edgerton has the most interesting part to play, that of a man whose “good” intentions are quickly perverted, who lost sight of the mission as he went deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.
The Robin Hood touches given Bulger — he was nice to little old ladies, let his mother beat him at gin rummy — don’t for a second humanize him. A father, he lectures his little son on how to settle a grudge with a classmate.
“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
Dakota Johnson plays the baby mama. Even she’s afraid of Whitey, or of calling him “Whitey.”
Benedict Cumberbatch keeps the cards close to the vest as Bulger’s very public and politically powerful brother Billy, long-untouchable in Boston even as Whitey’s depredations grew in notoriety.
There’s little detail of Bulger’s growing power and control of the drug trade, just a hint of his arming the I.R.A. and a mania for self-preservation. You mention his name in a police interrogation, you’re dead. Because Connolly was doing everything he could to preserve his “informant.” Including handing Bulger the names of “rats.”
Cooper gives us Scorsese-serious mugs in a lot of supporting roles. Guys like Jesse Plemons were born to play enforcers of the Irish variety. These guys had none of the garish style or media-friendly panache of the “Teflon Don” and his ilk.
But there’s no real style to the film, little of the urgency of “The Departed.” Cooper’s killings are abrupt, just a trip to “The Bulger Burial Ground,” a sudden strangulation or shooting.
Most of these guys seem too old to play their roles (Peter Sarsgaard is a stoner-impulsive Miami hitman). Corey Stoll is nicely impatient as a new federal prosecutor not Irish and not enamored of this “source” that he thinks should be in jail.
And Juno Temple should fire the agent who keeps getting her cast as hookers.
But Cooper keeps the tale on solid, factual footing. And Depp, in a performance that doesn’t quite sing “Oscar nomination,” strips away the glam and delivers the dirt.
The “banality of evil” was never so hypocritical, so banal and so evil.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard
Credits: Directed by Scott Cooper, script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, . A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:02