‘Black Mass’: Depp Kills, But It’s Still ‘Donnie Brasco Lite’

The black-and-white Warner Brothers logo that opens Scott Cooper’s Black Mask does more than set a mood; it reminds us of a legacy. Those B&W gangster pictures were WB’s specialty, once upon a time — tough, hard-boiled tales of crime and punishment, with the likes of Cagney, Robinson, and Bogart behaving badly (and having a great time doing so) before the square-jawed cops and feds swarmed in to give the bad guys their the Hays Code-mandated just desserts.

I mention this background not to show off my super-basic film history knowledge, but to reiterate that genre movies, for all of their commercial reliability, can only survive as mutating organisms; they must grow, change, adjust, and reinvent. The domestic gangster movie dry spell of the ‘50s and ‘60s was the result of filmmakers who didn’t know to do that, and the genre only returned to prominence when filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese reinvented it.

All of this is a long way of getting around to saying that Black Mass is a well-crafted, well-acted, and competently executed movie that you’ve seen many, many times before, and which goes its entire two hours without banging out anything resembling a fresh approach to this very familiar material. The filmmakers had their work cut out for them to begin with — the story of South Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger has already been told in Joe Berlinger’s electrifying documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, and fictionalized in Scorsese’s The Departed. On top of that, star Johnny Depp previously fronted Donnie Brasco, another true story of an FBI agent who gets in too deep with the mob (he was on the other side of the law/order equation in that one). With so many yardsticks to measure it against, it’s no surprise Black Mass comes up short.

Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in "Black Mass"

The key difference between Mass and Departed — aside from the aforementioned fictionalization — is how it handles its gangster kingpin’s association with the FBI: a twist in Departed, the primary subject here. The film is as much about Bulger as it is John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), his childhood buddy who becomes an FBI agent and cooks up a plan to form an “alliance” with Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. Their mutually beneficial goal is to put the Italian Mafia crew running North Boston out of business; Connolly can promise Bulger a relative amount of freedom from prosecution, provided he steers clear of really obvious stuff like murdering people. Bulger pretty much ignores that last part.

See also:
Johnny Depp Must Be Stopped
A Beginner’s Guide to Gangster Movies
Searching for Joe Pesci, in Honor of ‘Goodfellas’ at 25

There are forceful moments here, and a handful of boisterous performances (more on those presently). But it’s a picture drowned out by echoes of other, better pictures—and not just the ones I’ve mentioned. If the scenes of domestic comedy with Bulger’s Ma recall Goodfellas, the sequence of him intimidating one of Connolly’s colleagues over a “family secret” recipe, flipping from good cheer to menace and back in a snap, may as well have a “FUNNY HOW?” subtitle running underneath. Cooper intercuts the arrests of Bulger’s crew with a scene of him sitting contemplatively in a church; by the end of this movie, you shouldn’t be reminding people of The Godfather. And by the fifth or sixth scene of Connolly’s boss (Kevin Bacon) calling him on the carpet for not getting results, you start wondering what bad ‘80s cop show you’ve flipped over to.

But the picture it suffers most egregiously in comparison with is, unsurprisingly, Brasco. That film came in an early era, the pre-Pirates age, a time when (sit down and grampy’s feet, youngsters, so I can tell you a story) a new Johnny Depp movie was a legitimate cause for celebration, as he seemed to carefully select projects based on the quality of his collaborators and the acting challenges presented, rather than what funny hat and accent he could take for a spin. And while — as Stephanie Zacharek notes — Black Mass doesn’t break entirely with that tradition, it does find Depp doing his most exhilarating work in years; there’s a spark in his cold, weird eyes, a frightening menace in his purring growl, and an unnerving boldness to the way he helps himself to Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson, very goody in a typically thankless role).

Benedict Cumberbath and Johnny Depp in "Black Mass"

Yet the problem — and it doesn’t seem, for once, to be Depp’s fault — is there’s nothing to the character beyond his chilling surface. Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s script tries taking a shortcut to humanity by playing up the angle of his sick kid, but beyond that brief interlude, there’s no sense of what revs this guy’s engine. And if Depp’s Donnie Brasco was a nuanced, complex protagonist, torn asunder by the responsibilities of his job and the cheap thrills of his alter ego, Edgerton’s Connolly never comes across as much more than a neighborhood guy who owed Whitey a favor and sure liked wearing nicer suits. And while Edgerton’s a fine actor, the Australian-born thesp struggles to get out from under the character’s Southie accent and street machismo; it’s all performance, and the indicators are so loud that he never really disappears into it. (To that point, the less said about quintessentially British Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother, the better.)

Is Black Mass a bad movie? Not really, no. It’s got a handful of decent set pieces, a few big laughs, and Depp reminding us of what he’s capable of. It’s fine. But if you’re gonna make a gangster movie in 2015, you’ve gotta do a helluva lot better than “fine” to make an impression.

Black Mass is out tomorrow.