After the better part of a decade squandered on commercially shiny yet artistically hollow multiplex vehicles, Johnny Depp has reemerged from the abyss and has his steely blue, contact-lensed eyes on awards validation in Black Mass. Though hardly a one-man show, all eyes are on Depp as the strictly criminal South Boston gang lord James 'Whitey' Bulger.
A wily machinist of the Irish mob with purported psychopathic tendencies, who manipulated a dubious informant alliance with the FBI to expand his own bloody empire throughout the 70s and 80s, Bulger provides the 52-year-old actor's juiciest opportunity in years. Resembling a grim spectre of death – capped with prosthetic fivehead and darkened eye sockets – he commands his scenes with quiet malice, hissing a sinister Southie brogue through blackened teeth.
Whether or not the quality of his performances have been as consistent as his mere presence is subjective of course, but Black Mass is at least a return to the sort of movies that serious film-lovers can get behind.
Scott Cooper, whose previous tales of tortured machismo – Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace – mined strong internalized performances from Jeff Bridges and Christian Bale, has directed his new star to similar Depp-ths (sorry) of psychological imbalance. Although Bulger is certainly more villain than antihero, who we see under Depp's makeup is still a tragic human being, poisoned by the socially toxic environment from which he draws his power.
And he's not the only one. Joel Edgerton's terrific work as FBI investigator Jack Connolly, who protected Bulger (his informant and childhood friend) from investigation, is an even more sobering portrait of corruptibility. In fact Edgerton arguably makes more of the screenplay's limitations than Depp, whose performance is more one-note, albeit a consistently well played one.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, and Kevin Bacon among other day players do solid work in supporting parts that have them spouting expletive-laced dialogue that all starts to sound the same after a while. Dakota Johnsson, Juliane Nicholson, and Juno Temple represent the cast's entire female contingent; All of them excellent in severely limited roles, a common problem in this genre.
The violence spills forth in concentrated bursts of shock and awe, but end up far less shocking than Cooper intends. You can smell every callous assassination from a mile off in the script's dogmatic loyalty to mob movie cliches, foreshadowed by the oppressive droning of Tom Holkenborg's strings (a complete 180 from the revved-up rhythms he fuel-injected into this summer's Mad Max: Fury Road).
The actors are what make Black Mass worthwhile viewing, but even the best of them cannot elevate the film above what it is: A perfectly ordinary, acceptable mafia saga that can probably hold your attention just as well as the dozens of superior mafia sagas before it. Nothing less, nothing more. Nothing special.
**1/2 out of ****