A few years ago I invented a drinking game for people wanting to give up booze. It was very simple: you only drank when Johnny Depp played an American. Almost overnight, global alcohol consumption dropped to near-prohibition levels, even when many of Depp's non-American roles were actually inclined to drive people to drink. So far down the zany Tim Burton/Jack Sparrow character hole had Depp descended that the very notion of him playing a serious role again seemed as ludicrous as his daily jewellery selections.
Then, from out of nowhere, came the chilling Black Mass trailer, and it was as if all might suddenly be right in the world again. To hell with the drinking game, we wanted to see Depp actually act and it looked like that might just be what was happening. Yes, he was still in some intense makeup (complete with vampiric blue eyes and slicked back white hair), and yes, there was a thick Boston accent at play, but at its core this looked like gritty, dramatic Depp back to his legitimate best. Thankfully, the trailer wasn't lying.
Black Mass is the true story of Boston’s infamous crime lord James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp) and his astounding protected status as a secret tier-one informant for the FBI. The more you learn about Bulger, the more remarkable his tale becomes. For one, his brother William (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was the longest-ever serving senator from Boston, and Bulger's childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) became a key figure in the FBI’s anti-mafia division.
The short of it was that Connolly convinced Bulger to rat on his competition (primarily the Italians) in exchange for what amounted to a free run from police and the FBI regarding his own illegal operations. That arrangement saw Connolly rise in the ranks, but also allowed Bulger to transform from small-time hood to a national player in organised crime, and for years there seemed to be nothing anyone could do to stop him.
The strength of Black Mass is in its cast, which — along with its leads — boasts the likes of Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll and Peter Sarsgaard. There’s no weak link on the acting front, and even the bit parts turn in solid performances (Juno Temple’s brief appearance as a naive hooker the standout).
Instead, it’s the story where the film is found lacking. For such a remarkable tale of corruption and secret allegiances, the focus on Bulger’s crimes feels wasted and misdirected, if only because the 'Boston gangster saga' has already been done many times over, and — it should be said — better (The Departed topping that list).
Arguably the most intriguing dimension to the entire Bulger story is the Bulger dimension — the brothers, one a gangster and the other a powerful politician — yet it barely rates a mention, and Cumberbatch’s screen time is among the smallest in the film. How, in the modern era, one brother's affairs did not bring down the other’s raises compelling yet frustratingly unanswered questions that would have given the story a meatier emotional narrative and greater momentum. Still, take nothing away from the performances and please, raise a glass to the long overdue return of Johnny ‘Dramatic' Depp.