The Johnny Depp Archive

Black Mass (2015)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons

Directed by: Scott Cooper

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

At last Johnny Depp fans around the world can breathe a sigh of relief as, after a string of turkeys, our hero finally stars in a film that isn't shit.

In crime biopic Black Mass, the Deppmeister returns to doing what he does best: donning prosthetics (or 'uglying himself up for an Oscar' as Ian put it) to assume a real life role. Goodbye Johnny Depp, rock'n'roll pirate of the Hollywood seas, hello James 'Whitey' Bulger, notorious, psychopathic East Coast crime lord.

Johnny Depp as mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger in Black Mass

The year is 1975 and Bulger is an Irish American hoodlum racketeering and peddling drugs on the streets of Boston. Sick of playing second fiddle to the Mafia, he joins forces with boyhood-friend-done-good, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), to inform on the Italians and wipe them from the streets. But in return, John must cover Whitey's ass, a deal with the devil that can only have ill consequences, effectively granting him immunity to murder and profiteer at will. (As if that weren't enough, Whitey's brother Billy is a senator – unlikely, I know, but it's a true story. Even more unlikely is the casting – Billy Bulger is played, slightly awkwardly, by that most British of Brit actors, Benedict Cumberbatch. Okay.)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Depp as brothers Billy and James Bulger in Black Mass

So far so Goodfellas meets Donnie Brasco, but annoyingly Black Mass lacks the panache of the former (crime here is never fun, and Whitey seems to wear the same jacket for 15 years), the nail-biting tension of the latter and the emotional engagement of either. Because, as nobody here is really a good guy, we don't have anyone to root for. So as the noose tightens around the neck of the Winterhill gang and their FBI stooges, it's hard to care much whether anyone escapes or goes daaahn.

Having said that, the film is not without its merits: the period detail is nice and Depp and Edgerton are both superb. Johnny, almost unrecognisable through ice blue contact lenses, greasy hair combed back from a balding domed head, rat-like pointed nose thrust aggressively forward, gives an utterly chilling performance. Far from selling us Whitey as a charismatic wrong 'un in the style of George Jung, he portrays him as a genuine psychopath almost entirely lacking in normal human sentiment. Edgerton, on the other hand, is all bluster and bravado, flashy suits, fat ties and expensive gold jewellery concealing a street kid still dazzled by old loyalties. If there's a character to gravitate towards it's probably him, but it's hard to have much sympathy for someone who makes such terrible decisions.

Joel Edgerton as John Connolly and Johnny Depp as James Bulger in Black Mass

Dark, in parts luridly gruesome, and forensic in its depiction of Whitey's ruthless coldness, Black Mass is an absorbing mob movie and a towering return to form for Depp (an ugly Oscar may indeed beckon), but it's no Goodfellas. Sorry, Johnny.

  • Share on Tumblr