Film fans will already know that the 2006 film The Departed was based on the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, but two of its characters were loosely inspired by a notorious Boston gangster and a corrupt FBI agent. After numerous TV shows and films with characters loosely based on James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Crazy Heart director takes on the film adaptation of his life.
Black Mass charts the life of James Bulger (Johnny Depp) from 1975 to the early nineties, during which he acted as an FBI informant. But using federal ‘protection’ and insider information from corrupt agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), he grows to become one of Boston’s most notorious gangsters.
While past Boston crime dramas such as The Departed and The Town have underlying themes of brotherhood and loyalty, Black Mass has a slight edge by including the subject of federal corruption. Jen Butterworth and Mark Mallow’s screenplay makes use of Connolly’s arrogance and Bulger’s intimidation to ensure that the relationship between the two delivers the necessary twists and turns, but ultimately fails to bring another dimension to these two almost stereotypical characters. However, Cooper directs the picture with confidence and suspense, making the most of one-on-one confrontations to highlight his supporting cast such as Dakota Johnson and David Harbour.
With regards to the casting, Depp shrugs off the caricature performances of recent years to reinvent himself as Bulger. Strange make-up aside, he carries the film with self-assurance and delivers a credible performance. Edgerton is equally watchable; as the self-confident Connolly, he manages to talk his way throughout the film, reaping the rewards of being associated with a gangster in the process. The inclusion of Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother Billy is an interesting one; even though he is a senator, he isn’t involved in any criminal activity nor does he bow down to federal involvement, leaving him in the ironic position of being the most moral character among the three.
Overall, Black Mass is an engaging, nail-biting thriller with Depp’s best performance in years.
Black Mass is shown on 12th and 16th October and out in UK cinemas on 27th November.
Director: Scott Cooper
Stars: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson
Runtime: 122 mins