If Johnny Depp had sprung fangs and turned into a bat in "Black Mass," I wouldn't have been all that shocked. And I might have found this flat, by-the-books crime saga considerably more Ientertaining.
• It should be said that Depp gives his best and most restrained performance in adecade as the notorious South Boston gangster and FBI informant James "Whitey" Bulger. Thatmakeup, though.
• The makeup might be good; it might be a meticulously accurate re-creation of how Bulger looked in the late '70s and early '80s. But it's profoundly distracting. Under cloudy blue contacts, a receded gray hairline and pounds of makeup, Depp looks like your weird uncle cosplaying as a White Walker.
• And Bulger's real-life behavior depicted here befits an undying, merciless creature of myth. Though "Black Mass" gives Bulger a few glimmers of humanity — even gangsters love their mothers! — the film mostly luxuriates in the psychopathic violence of its frosty lizard man. Depp's Bulger creeps around like Nosferatu, hissing with glee as he strangles a prostitute or going dead-eyed as he shotguns a rat.
In a scene that recalls Joe Pesci's "I amuse you?" speech in "Goodfellas," Bulger threatens an associate for so readily revealing a secret family recipe. Then he goes upstairs and intimates that he's going to rape the wife of a friend.
He's an insane person, which makes him not an especially interesting central character. His villain's journey is from crazy to marginally crazier.
Some of the other characters around Bulger have a little more dramatic potential.
FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), for instance. Connolly grew up in the same neighborhood as Bulger. He worshipped the older street tough.
Now Connolly's been tasked with cutting off the head of the Italian mob in Boston. Through a meeting brokered by Bulger's state senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch, whose Boston accent is among the hahdest to stomach), Bulger and Connolly make a pact. Bulger gives him intel on the Italian mob, and the FBI leaves Bulger's Winter Hill Gang alone.
Through this alliance — which Bulger assures himself and others isn't really informing (or "infahmin' ") — Bulger and Connolly rise in their respective worlds. Connolly gets promoted. Bulger goes from hood to kingpin. With the FBI's assistance, Bulger's empire flourishes.
This all really happened, and it's one of the most fascinating and well-documented law enforcement debacles of the 20th century, full of so many turns, betrayals and bizarre players that, hey, you know, it would make a good movie.
But screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth's adaptation of Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's book offers little more than a rote accounting of the gruesome facts. Depp's freak show boogeyman gives the proceedings a little flavor, but even the stranglings and headshots start to grow a bit repetitive after a while.
The film's biggest narrative issue is a lack of perspective. This isn't really any one character's story. It's nominally Bulger's movie, but he often feels more like a Looney Tunes supporting character than the focus. It appears it's going to be Connolly's story for a while, but he so quickly and enthusiastically embeds himself in Bulger's operation that no possibility for internal conflict remains. He's soon just another vaguely written bad guy. (And Edgerton, a typically reliable actor, struggles with not only the Southie accent but the braggadocio; his bad hair and perpetually smug expression make him come off like a young Donald Trump.)
A more lively approach to the direction might have helped. Director Scott Cooper (who made the equally flaccid "Out of the Furnace") appears to be going for a subdued crime drama along the lines of a Sidney Lumet film. But he doesn't have the script or the well-developed characters to support such a straightforward style. There are some crisp compositions and a fair amount of gritty texture. There's just no momentum.
As such, the film has all the violence, wise-guy plotting and great cast of a good Scorsese movie. But there's little of the energy and none of the playful wit that makes films like "Goodfellas," "Casino" and "The Departed" — the obvious points of comparison for "Black Mass" — such stone-cold classics.