American filmmakers have been making gangster movies since the beginning of movies — Raoul Walsh’s 1915 “Regeneration” may have been the first — and there’s never any shortage of gangster stories, true or fictional.
But sometimes filmmakers try to say something important about America or gangsters or both, and the movies tend to go on too long and swell a little too big for the stories they’re telling. Sometimes it works, as in “The Godfather.” Other times, it’s tiresome: Johnny Depp in “Public Enemies,” for example.
“Black Mass” director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace”) focuses on events and characters, letting viewers figure out the big stuff in the film based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.
That’s good news for Depp, who gives one of his richest performances as James “Whitey” Bulger, an Irish-American mob boss, murderer and racketeer who ruled the South of Boston in the 1970s-80s, and also happened to be an informer to the FBI for more than 20 years, connected with agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), his childhood friend.
Even more strange: Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a senator in Massachusetts.
From time to time, they would get together for a Christmas dinner or a barbecue. No big deal.
The movie covers major events in Bulger’s life, including when he provided a (literal) boatload of weapons to the IRA. Not really history lessons, they’re extensions of Bulger’s character.
Director Cooper steps aside and populates the film with an incredible array of actors, filling its edges and corners with rich characters.
Rory Cochrane is Bulger’s sad-sack right-hand man, Jesse Plemons is hired muscle, Kevin Bacon is a pushy FBI man, Peter Sarsgaard is a coke-addicted street hustler and Julianne Nicholson is Connolly’s unhappy wife. The list doesn’t stop there.
But they are all in Bulger’s shadow. Depp dons thinning, slicked-back hair, oversized eyewear, a brown, crooked tooth and ice-blue eyes; he’s like a shark. He can hypnotize anyone in the room, intimidate them, get them to follow him — and fear him. He can catch you off guard, too, as in the memorable “recipe” scene.
Depp’s Bulger is careful and protects himself, never getting too big for his britches or forgetting where he came from.
The result: “Black Mass” is a good, form-fitting movie that’s easy to grasp.
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane
Written by Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
Directed by Scott Cooper
Running time 2 hours, 2 minutes