‘Black Mass’ Review: Johnny Depp as a Wicked Boston Gangster

Warner Bros.

Jawny Depp.

He can be a great actuh. But at a certain point in the recent past, Jawny seemed to stop looking faw great material and stahted looking faw anything that would affawd him the awppawtunity to put on a crazy wig and speak in a weeuhd accent. In the past few yeeuhs he’s played a vampiyuh with crazy hair and a weeuhd accent, a Native American with a bird on his head and a weeuhd accent, a Canadian detective with a fake nose and a weeuhd accent, a singing wolf with crazy hair and a weeuhd accent, a British art thief with a crazy mustache and a weeuhd accent, and now, in Black Mass, he’s James “Whitey” Bulgah, with thinning hair and a thick Bahston accent. Do you think Jawny even remembuhs what he really looks and sounds like at this point?

Surprisingly, in spite of that hair and accent (and some distracting blue cawntact lenses) Depp’s puhfawmance in Black Mass is his best and most undahstated in yeeuhs. His Bulgah is a chilling mawnstuh, lawding ovah the Bahston undahworld through intimidation and violence. But the film itself is a fawmulaic gangstuh biopic that rushes through Bulgah’s stawry with little insight into his actions and some very iffy suppawting puhfawmances.

Directah Skawt Coopah doesn’t spend any time explaining how Bulgah became one of the most heinous criminals in Bahston history. As the film begins, Whitey’s already a notawrious figyah in Southie as the leaduh of the Wintuh Hill gang. Bulgah’s goons narrate his stawry from the present day, in the fawm of testimony given aftuh they’ve awl been arrested and turned awn on one anutha. Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and Stephen Flemmi (Rawry Cochrane) explain how a boyhood friend of Bulgah’s, Jawn Cawnnolly (Joel Edguhton), used his position at the FBI to fawge an unlikely alliance between the U.S. government and the awganized crime bawss. Cawnnolly turned Bulgah into an infawment faw the cawps, and at first, the alliance helped both sides; Bulgah’s infawmation gave the FBI a leg-up on the Italian Mawfia. And once the Italian Mawfia was out of the way, Bulgah and his crew took ovuh their territory — cawnfident in the knawledge that the FBI would look the othuh way. But Bulgah wouldn’t be controlled, and he definitely didn’t fawllow Cawnnolly’s awduhs nawt to kill anyone. Befaw his reign of terruh was ovah, the FBI was complicit in the deaths of numerous innocent people.

That’s a prahvawcative true stawry, but Coopah’s version of these events leaves a lawt to be desiyud. He shows some of Bulgah’s curious contradictions — he was a sadistic criminal and a loving fathuh; he despised infawmants but became one himself — and recounts many of his wuhst crimes, but he nevuh comes close to making us unduhstand what made the man tick. Black Mass is 122 minutes of what with absolutely no why, and it ends with the equivalent of a sad shrug.

It’s also gawt a suppawting cast that looks as lawst on the mean streets of Bahston as a New Yawk Yankees fan. The Awstrailian Edguhton should have made a sawlid foil faw Depp, but he struggles mightily with the regional dialect. Benedict Cumbahbatch, playing Bulgah’s younguh bruhthuh Billy, does an even worse jawb of masking his natural English accent. That relationship between Whitey and Billy should be the most interesting in the film, but the bruhthuhs get surprisingly little screentime togethuh and most of their potential feels sqwanduhd. They don’t seem like they were raised in the same country, much less the same family.

Only a couple of Depp’s co-stahs look at home in the world of Black Mass. Julianne Nicholson is good in a smawll role as Cawnnolly’s wife, as is Petah Sahsgahd as a strung-out paranoid crook and Cawrey Stoll as the FBI man who finally stahts to tighten the noose around the dirty agents’ necks. But in general the actuhs’ New Englund pronunciation is distractingly paw (and sometimes downright silly). If Coopuh wanted a lot of Bahston accents in his movie, why didn’t he cast maw actuhs who wuh actually from Bahston?

Befaw he was a directuh, Coopah was an actor, and his movies so fah (Crazy Haht, Out of thuh Furnace) work best as showcases fah strawng lead puhfawmances. That’s certainly true of Black Mass; Depp’s fah and away the best paht of the movie. But othuhwise there’s not much awthenticity heeah, despite some gritty cinematawgraphy by Masanobu Takayanagi. And as this review hopefully shows, when ya fill something with ovah-thuh-tawp Bahston accents, it can be very hahd to focus awn anything else.

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