*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Scott Cooper
STARS Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton
Johnny Depp in Black Mass (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Do mine eyes deceive me? Is that Johnny Depp delivering an actual performance in Black Mass, his first genuine example of emoting in many a year? And he's doing it under a mountain of makeup, the sort of latex overload that generally provides him with carte blanche to do nothing more than mug shamelessly for the camera?
It's nice to have the talented thespian with us once more, even if his stay proves to be a short one (after all, he has both an Alice in Wonderland sequel and an umpteenth Pirates of the Caribbean yarn in the post-production stages). Practically unrecognizable with that bald pate and those blue-sky contact lenses, Depp projects ferocious intensity as real-life crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger, whose Trivial Pursuit claim to fame is that he spent over a decade as the #2 man on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list, right under some fellow named Osama bin Laden. Through this feature film — arriving a mere year after Joe Berlinger's documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger — we're privy to the activities that lead to his wanted status, including murder and racketeering, and we watch as he builds an empire with the help of the FBI. Or, to be specific, with the help of one particular agent: John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up with Bulger in South Boston and has allowed his childhood admiration to seep into his honorable career and poison it. Connolly urges his fellow agents (Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and David Harbour) at the Bureau to allow Bulger to get away with minor offenses in exchange for damning information regarding the Italian mob competing against Bulger's Irish faction. Of course, Bulger has no intention of playing by the rules, and he manages to commit more and greater crimes while feeding the Bureau useless intel.
Indeed, it's the presence of Edgerton's character which allows Black Mass to play as more than just an also-ran in the "mob movie" sweepstakes. In many ways, Connolly is just as immoral as Bulger, ratting out informants (who, of course, are then killed) to stay in the gangster's good graces and even putting their relationship above those he enjoys with his friends at the Bureau and with his own wife (Julianne Nicholson). Edgerton plays the part with the right mix of braggadocio and unctuousness, strutting with a skewered sense of self-purpose yet unable to completely conceal the flop sweat triggered by his underhanded moves. He provides a nice counterpart to Depp's steely menace, and with both actors further supported by a stellar supporting roster (Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger's politician brother, Corey Stoll as a no-nonsense district attorney, Peter Sarsgaard as a twitchy small-time hood, and many more), Black Mass ably demonstrates that there's still some life left in a genre that, just when we think we're out, pulls us back in.