WARNING: Spoiler Alert.
In another era, “Black Mass” would have only appealed to fans of gangster movies and Boston history. In this era, it finds its way into the mainstream by casting a movie geek’s dream of both mainstay and upcoming stars. Unfortunately, acting can only take a movie so far, and even the stunning performances in “Black Mass” can’t quite make up for a chaotic and underdeveloped plot. On paper, the plot is simple. “Black Mass” tells the story of notorious Boston gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) as he uses his position as an FBI informant to lead his Winter Hill Gang to the top of Boston’s criminal underworld. It’s when the movie tries to cram a full biography into one movie where things start to go south.
Age of the Bio-Pic
The Hollywood re-editing of biographies into bio-pics has become a popular trend. With the recent success of Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”, Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” and now Johnny Depp’s Whitey Bulger, it seems like Hollywood’s current strategy is to make movies that, 10 years from now, will be shown primarily when history teachers call in sick. These movies get everyone excited, not because of the men behind the story, but because of the men in front of the camera.
No matter who is starring, bio-pics can only be so entertaining. In the case of “Black Mass,” even with an all-star cast, writers Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth and director Scott Cooper, were left with an impossible task: Tell the life story of America’s most wanted criminal in roughly two hours. As great of a story Whitey Bulger’s life might be, it just doesn’t translate well to film. The most blaring example of the resulting cinematic suitcase-stuffing is when the final 20-plus-years leading to Bulger’s arrest are summarized by a few paragraphs of text. While it does allow for the complete story to be told, it is extremely underwhelming -like all the good parts of the movie just led to a screening of the Whitey Bulger Wikipedia page.
Unrecognizably Good Acting
What saves whatever is left of “Black Mass” is the acting. Johnny Depp’s complete transformation into Bulger ends up being one of the highlights of the movie as he stays unrecognizable throughout. A welcomed surprise came in the form of Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly. Edgerton’s performance is brought to the forefront as a lot of the story focuses on the relationship between Connolly and Bulger. Edgerton creates a perfectly hateable character, who ends up being the film’s true villain. Granted, this role isn’t as shocking as Depp’s, especially given Edgerton’s performance of other highbrow jerks like Tom Buchanan in 2013’s “The Great Gatsby,” but in no way does that take away from his performance.
Even if Depp and Edgerton aren’t considered, the cast is still filled with stellar names like Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, and many more. If nothing else, “Black Mass” filled every roll with insane talent so that acting was no concern.
Claiming no expertise in anything Boston, the movie’s portrayal of the city and its people are, at the very least, not distracting. For the average American, even Benedict Cumberbatch’s Boston accent sounds fine. As for the true Bostonian, there shouldn’t be anything to fully discredit the movie.
There is no limit of quality acting, not only in “Black Mass” but in today’s movie industry as a whole. No matter how good the acting may be may be though, the only thing that can make a movie great is the story. “Black Mass” could have been a lot of things, but as is the case with many bio-pics today, it was only good.