Friday 27 November 2015

Black Mass: Real-life crime boss ‘Whitey’ Bulger is as cartoonish as any character Johnny Depp's played in the last 20 years


Black Mass
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch
Running time: 122 mins

From Captain Jack Sparrow and Barnabas Collins to Willy Wonka and Charlie Mortdecai, Johnny Depp has played more than his fair share of two-dimensional cartoon people in the last decade or so. Unfortunately, I’m not sure his portrayal of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger offers anything too different, despite the character being a real-life American crime boss.

We begin in 1975 and Bulger (Depp under a ton of ‘uglifying’ make-up) is the “notorious and violent” head of a South Boston Irish criminal gang who are engaged in a turf war with the mob. After being approached by childhood friend John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) – now an ambitious FBI agent – Bulger sees an opportunity to put his rivals out of business for good and agrees to turn informant. Seemingly handed total immunity from prosecution, Bulger and his men amp up their criminal activities and soon rule not just Boston’s underworld but have their fingers in various illegal pies further afield, too. Of course, their rampage of assassination, kidnapping, gun running, racketeering and extortion can’t possibly last…

No one expects a brutal crime drama to be full of kitten giggles and joy but Scott Cooper’s follow up to Out Of The Furnace is so relentlessly, tediously bleak it’s ridiculous. A crappy Ramones covers band has more notes than Black Mass. Depp – superb in everything from Ed Wood to Donnie Brasco, lest we forget – does his best as Bulger but has precious little to work with. The man has two characteristics: unpleasant and extremely unpleasant – any nuance or depth is abandoned early on after the death of his young son. That could and should have been a springboard to explore his grief and how it affected him, but instead Bulger is pretty much the same as before, only substantially nastier.

The character’s nihilism bleeds into the rest of the film which is like one of those Matryoshka nesting dolls, only full of arseholes rather than rosy-cheeked Russian girls. Every time one arsehole is removed, up pops another one to shout, swear, brawl and beat its chest. There are women in here somewhere too but they may as well be mannequins with actresses’ faces drawn on in crayon for all they are given to do. Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades Of Grey) shows promise as the mother of Bulger’s child but she disappears early on and is never mentioned again. Juno Temple (Horns) pops up as a doomed prostitute and Julianne Nicholson (Masters Of Sex) plays Connelly’s wife, but they exist to be (respectively) murdered and menaced by Bulger and for precious little else.

If they aren’t fighting, murdering or boozing, the arseholes are screaming ‘fuck you’ at each other – at times it’s like some bizarre satire on macho behaviour in which male characters find it impossible to hold a conversation without first comparing the size of their dicks. You half expect Connelly to start flinging poop at his FBI bosses as they continue to butt heads over his handling of the Bulger situation. It’s like Goodfellas with all the wit, charm, warmth and humour surgically removed. In fact, at one point, Black Mass even riffs on the earlier film’s much-celebrated ‘Funny how?’ scene in which Joe Pesci tricks Ray Liotta into thinking the younger man has slighted him (below). In Martin Scorsese’s movie, Pesci’s manic energy and gift for comedy make the sequence something truly special. Here, the sequence – in which Depp appears to get angry after Connelly’s FBI sidekick John Morris (David Harbour) gives up a family recipe for marinated steak – falls flat because its air of menace pervades after the ‘joke’ is revealed. Clearly, even the tiniest light-hearted or humorous moment is verboten lest it break the film's remorselessly Stygian spell. 

Maybe the point is to show us criminality in all its raw, unfettered ugliness; perhaps depicting gangsters as anything other than brutal, ruthless hoodlums is dishonest and disingenuous. Unfortunately, that proves about as edifying a spectacle as watching pigs wallow in their own filth.

For all its shortcomings, Cooper’s film does get a couple of things right. The cast is certainly impressive; as well as Depp and Edgerton (The Gift), it boasts Kevin Bacon (Cop Car), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Jesse Plemons (Bridge Of Spies) and Peter Sarsgaard (Blue Jasmine), although a heavily moustached Adam Scott (The Overnight) looks like he’s just wandered in from the Beastie Boys’ video for ‘Sabotage’. Unfortunately, they're all poorly served by a weak, repetitive script (Oh look, Bulger's lured someone out to a deserted house/patch of waste ground, I wonder if he's going to kill them?)

It also makes a decent fist of exploring the notion that criminality, law enforcement, and politics (exemplified here by Whitey’s state senator brother Billy, played by Cumberbatch) are so entwined as to be almost inseparable. It’s hardly an original concept, I know, but one most welcome in a film that has so little to say elsewhere. The idea that everyone is morally compromised is exemplified by Connelly – you’re never quite sure why he has thrown in his lot so totally with Bulger. Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, does he really think the quality and usefulness of the information he gets from the man outweighs the evil he does? Does their shared childhood history and resulting loyalty preclude him from seeing Bulger’s true colours or, in reality, is he little more than a criminal with a badge, happy to play both sides as long as he comes out on top? 

Ultimately, though, my disappointment with Black Mass had me wondering why modern Hollywood serves this genre so poorly. The studios can churn out top-notch superhero and action films like there’s no tomorrow, but what was the last truly great crime or gangster movie; one that could happily sit alongside the likes of The Godfather, Goodfellas and Heat without embarrassing itself? Public Enemies? Nope. American Gangster? Hardly. Gangster Squad? Please. You probably have to go back to 2007 and the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, or a year earlier to Scorsese’s The Departed, and that was a remake of Andy Lau’s Hong Kong flick Infernal Affairs.

Have audiences grown tired of bad guys (trust me, they’ll be sick to death of Whitey Bulger after half an hour) or have movie execs simply decided to leave the field clear to those who seem to know what they’re doing; namely the TV creatives behind the likes of The Sopranos, The Wire, Fargo, The Shield, Banshee and True Detective (well, season one at least)? It would be great to see someone have a crack at an ambitious, sophisticated crime film again – something epic, sweeping and adult. The only thing I’ve seen this year that comes close to fulfilling those criteria was an Italian-French movie called Black Souls (Anime Nere), which focused on the Sicilian mob. It had rich, complex characters, a simple but gripping story in which the stakes and violence grew bigger and scarier as the film proceeded, and a truly heart-stopping denouement. In other words, it had everything Cooper's film so sorely lacks.

The most frustrating thing is that Bulger was (is) a fascinating man and there’s a great film still to be made about him. In Black Mass, the extraordinary story of how he tried to send a massive consignment of arms to the IRA in Northern Ireland on a boat is just tossed away in a tiny five-minute subplot when it might have worked rather better as the movie’s central focus.

Rating: W

Black Mass is in UK cinemas now (but for heaven's sake go and see Brooklyn, Bridge Of Spies or Carol instead)


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthwhile
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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