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Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Mass: Can We Finally Take Johnny Depp Seriously Again?

It's been a long time, Johnny.

After a string of mediocre-at-best, cringe-worthy at worst roles (I'm looking at you, The Lone Ranger), I'd pretty much given up hope on seeing the star who dominated movies like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Benny & Joon.  If anything, I was getting to the point where hearing of Johnny Depp's involvement was a strike against most movies.

I'll also admit that seeing the previews of Depp donning heavy makeup and facial prosthetics for a gangster biopic didn't have me on the edge of my seat. But as it turns out, Depp is actually the best part of the fairly long but enjoyable retelling of James "Whitey" Bulger's rise to infamy.

Black Mass is the latest film from director Scott Cooper, best known for projects like Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace.  It feels like a slightly starker, truer version of The Departed, as it delves into the FBI's involvement with Bulger as an informant. The relationship, meant to take down the Italian mob in Boston, spirals out of control quickly and becomes a means of protection for Bulger, which he uses to seize power over the city's drug and weapons dealing.

The film boasts a fairly heavy roster of actors in addition to Depp, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, Sienna Miller, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll and Adam Scott. Cumberbatch and Scott are just as out of place as they sound in a movie about gangsters in Boston, but the rest of the performances across the board are fairly strong, with Depp's performance generally stealing the show, marking what is likely his best in more than a decade.

The most disappointing part of Black Mass is the film's running time, both perceived and actual. The movie clocks in at just over 2 hours, but I would have honestly guessed I'd been sitting in the theater for closer to 3. Moving more like a miniseries, Black Mass spans decades of time to weave its narrative, with uneven pacing throughout.

The subject matter and absurdity of Bulger's story, though, help propel the narrative forward and pierce through some of those pacing issues. Fans of gangster flicks will also probably find this to be one of the more faithful take on the subject, for better or worse. Fans of cinema in generally will probably be more interested in witnessing Depp's return to The Realm of Serious Acting.

I'm right on the edge of recommending seeing this in theaters or saving it to stream on a rainy day, because Black Mass is not for everyone. It's an easy question to answer if you know what kind of films you like; this film is, if nothing else, exactly as advertised. There are no misleading trailers or plot twists or anything obstructing the truth. So if you're interested in a biopic style performance from Depp, or the slow-but-intriguing retelling of Bulger's story, this is a movie you'll likely enjoy. If neither of those are enough to make a film for you, this is one to skip entirely.

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