Friday, September 18, 2015

In Theaters: BLACK MASS (2015)

(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Scott Cooper. Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth. Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp. (R, 122 mins)

If you listen closely in the theater, as the lights go down and BLACK MASS starts, you can almost hear CRAZY HEART and OUT OF THE FURNACE director Scott Cooper say "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to make a Scorsese movie." So it is with the much-anticipated BLACK MASS, touted as a return to form following a surplus of whimsical dress-up and endless self-indulgent eccentricities from former actor Johnny Depp. Even the most devoted Depp apologists turned on him after the loathsome MORTDECAI and to that end, BLACK MASS does showcase Depp's best performance in years, even if it's by default. Though he's not as "Depp"-y, it's still more of the same to some extent: as infamous South Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, he's again buried under a ton of caked-on makeup, a combination bald cap/receded hairline, and a pair of ice-blue contact lenses that look not unlike those used on Bill Bixby at the beginning of a Hulk-out into Lou Ferrigno on THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Taking place from 1975 to 1991, BLACK MASS covers a lot of ground with a lot of characters, but it has all the depth and insight of Bulger's Wikipedia page. There was probably a longer, more epic film here at some point--even shortly before the film's release, it was still being tweaked, with Sienna Miller's entire role as a Bulger girlfriend ending up on the cutting room floor due to what Cooper termed "narrative choices."

Though Depp is front and center as Bulger, it almost feels as though the film should be about FBI agent John Connolly, played here by Joel Edgerton (THE GIFT). A childhood friend of Bulger and his state senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), Connolly approaches Bulger in 1975 with an offer to become an FBI informant in an effort not to take down Southie crime operations, but rather, the Irish mob's Mafia competition. As the years go on, Bulger's Winter Hill Gang empire grows as he gives nothing to Connolly, who becomes complicit in Bulger's crimes by alerting him to FBI operations and falsifying reports under the guise of Bulger cooperation. Bulger is the devil on Connolly's shoulder, but their relationship really isn't explored, nor is there much in the way of escalating tension as Connolly gets in way over his head in his labyrinthine machinations to steer the FBI away from Bulger. We see him and co-conspirator agent John Morris (David Harbour) getting into shouting matches with incredulous colleagues played by Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott in superfluous extended cameos, and we see Connolly's new-found flashy sartorial choices not going over well with his wife (Julianne Nicholson), but nothing really happens with him until a new special agent (Corey Stoll) takes charge and starts holding him accountable as he still struts around the bureau office with a "What? Me Worry?" demeanor.

Connolly is a man obliviously drowning in his immoral and unethical choices and his pure hubris, but Cooper and screenwriters Jez Butterworth (EDGE OF TOMORROW) and Mark Mallouk are much more interested in Depp's feature-length Whitey Bulger impression. Depp is fine in the role, but at the end of the day, it's still not very far removed from what he's been doing for the last several years. He's using an intimidating monotone voice but letting the hairline and the contact lenses do almost all of the heavy lifting, and there's numerous scenes--the "family recipe" bit with Harbour's Morris, in particular--where he's just riffing on Joe Pesci and the "Funny how?" scene from GOODFELLAS. Cooper wants the entire film to be a Scorsese love letter, whether it's to GOODFELLAS or THE DEPARTED with its Baahston accents and Bulger being the prime inspiration for Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello in the latter film. Cooper doesn't have the style or the sense of energy to pull off Scorsese beyond a basic homage, and as a result, his film often keeps you at a distance.

BLACK MASS is a pretty decent movie, but it's hard to shake the feeling that it could've been an exceptional one. There's a great cast and a fascinating story here and all we really get when it's over is a Whitey Bulger Greatest Hits package that gets into a comfortable and too-familiar groove and never tries to go further than scratching the surface. Everyone loves a good Scorsese-style crime saga, but why not just watch a real one instead of a pretend one? For all the presence Depp has as Bulger, his performance is still pretty one-dimensional in execution, with very little known about him other than his skills as a master manipulator and feared killer. Other than Edgerton, everyone else just drops by on occasion. Dakota Johnson has a brief role as the mother of Bulger's young son, but when the son dies from Reyes' Syndrome, she's never seen or mentioned again. We also see a lot of Bulger soldiers, but with the exception of hapless schlub Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), we learn little about them, other than they all eventually turn on Bulger to save their own asses. BLACK MASS is compelling from start to finish, but you've seen it all before. Overt Scorsese worship is fine when you can master the style and give it your own spin (like David O. Russell with AMERICAN HUSTLE), but Cooper's direction is workmanlike at best. Without a Thelma Schoonmaker by his side to help him find those distinct patterns and rhythms, Cooper is only capable of delivering Scorsese-lite.  And Scorsese-lite works if you're looking for a two-hour, empty calories crime story to watch when nothing else is on. Just don't expect anything substantive.

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