Monday, September 28, 2015

Black Mass

2.5/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, David Harbour, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson

Rated R for Brutal Violence, Language Throughout, Some Sexual References and Brief Drug Use

I gotta hand it to Scott Cooper, the director of "Black Mass:" he's ambitious.  With this film, he seeks to profile the rise and fall of notorious gangster James "Whitey" Bulger (Depp) through his dealings with John Connelly (Edgerton).  Unfortunately, it's too ambitious of a scope for Coopers limited talents (his previous film, "Out of the Furnace," had a similar problem).

By the 1970's, James "Whitey" Bulger was already a hardened criminal.  However, while he had served time in the slammer, he's not the FBI's most pressing concern.  That would be the Italian mafia.  An eager beaver of the FBI named John Connelly, who knows Whitey from the neighborhood, thinks that they can use him to get to the mafia.  His superiors reluctantly agree, but Whitey won't play by the rules.  Nor does he really help them.

The problem with this film is that it lacks focus.  Cooper tries to throw in everything, and I mean everything.  His powerful senator brother Billy (Cumberbatch), his wife (Johnson), and a strung out hitman (Peter Sarsgaard).  And that's just to start.  It's all very interesting, but subplots and characters appear and disappear almost at random.  For example, while Billy Bulger is obviously very important to how Whitey was able to stay free for so long, in the film he's almost superfluous.  His girlfriend/wife (the movie never says which) played by Dakota Johnson shows up only for a scene or two then disappears without a word (all things considered, it's for the best, since Johnson is sorely miscast).

The film's star is obviously Depp, and will undoubtedly be the reason why many people see this movie.  How can I blame them?  Even in lame movies like "Secret Window" or "Don Juan DeMarco," Depp is always good.  Depp has been getting Oscar buzz for his portrayal, but it's doubtful he'll get a nomination; the film was released before the Oscar window and the film is too weak to stand against the heavy hitters when they come out.  Nevertheless, Depp is effective, but no more.  The make-up is superlative and he's not sleepwalking through the role, but we always know that it's Depp "playing" Whitey Bulger.

His co-star, Joel Edgerton, is more impressive, mainly because Edgerton has only recently gotten the chance to show his stuff (as good as it was, I don't think anyone actually saw "Warrior" four years ago).  John is a squirrely sort who will do anything to get ahead, including look the other way at Whitey's most brutal activities.

There's no reason why this movie couldn't have worked.  "Goodfellas" proves that.  But while Scorcese's film details just about every inch of the mob, the focus is solely on Henry Hill.  A movie that has two central characters can work, but it takes a far defter touch than Cooper possesses.  Apparently, the film's running time was almost an hour longer, but Cooper cut it down for "pacing reasons."  Judging by the result, he probably should have quit while he was ahead.

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