It has been really difficult to take Johnny Depp seriously for much of the 21st century. The first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film came out in 2003. Since then, Depp has starred in 19 films, 11 of which have relied upon Depp donning either a ridiculous wig, crazy accent or both. It is no coincidence that almost all of those films have been terrible, with review scores on Rotten Tomatoes ranging between 12 and 50 percent.
In fact, it can be so difficult to take 21st century Depp seriously that it’s easy to forget he’s a damn fine actor when you stop him from doing a silly caricature and get him to actually ACT. Thankfully, it would appear that “Black Mass” director Scott Cooper has the magic touch, because this is Johnny Depp at his absolute best.
“Black Mass” is the story of the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bulger, a South Boston, Irish-descended thug who unseated the Italian Mafia and became one of the biggest gangsters in the country in the 1970s and ’80s. The film starts in 1975, when Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang was at the peak of its power in South Boston. Through the film’s two-hour run time, we see Bulger grab for more and more territory in Boston, all at the expense of the Mafia. It is a power move that Bulger would not have been able to accomplish without help, and in Bluger’s case, that help came in the form of the FBI, for whom Bulger begins working as an informant.
For the next two decades, this becomes Bulger’s duality: On one hand, he is a heavy-handed crime boss who preaches about the importance of loyalty and kills informants in his own ranks unmercifully; on the other, he is working with the FBI, providing information on criminal acts in and around Boston, with an eye specifically toward unseating the Mafia in the city.
As a film, “Black Mass” does not do its subject matter the proper justice. When your story matter involves Massachusetts’ most powerful crime boss and his brother, the state’s most powerful politician, and tells the tale of one gang’s rise to total control over a city with the active help of the federal government, there is the potential for some genuine cloak-and-dagger thrills and drama. But “Black Mass” gives us almost none of that. Instead, the film is sluggishly paced and dull for large stretches.
But where the film shines like almost nothing else this year is in the performance of its lead. Yes, Depp’s Bulger still relies on some heavy makeup and wig action, and depending on your impressions of the Boston area, it could be argued that he also relies on a wacky accent. But even stripped of all of that, there is no denying the incredible weight that Depp brings to the screen for “Black Mass.” Bulger is a dangerous, viscous man, and Depp plays it to the hilt with seething intensity.
“Black Mass” has its share of issues, and members of the Winter Hill Gang have gone on record in recent days decrying the film for alleged liberties that it takes with the source material. But at the middle of it all, wrapped in the imperfect trappings of the rest of the film, there is a performance that will stand as one of the best of the year.
If you go to “Black Mass” because you love mobster flicks, you stand the chance of being disappointed. But if you go because you love career-defining performances, “Black Mass” is one of the surest bets going. CV