Johnny Depp is a fantastic actor, but he’s been in a bit of a rut lately. Ever since the original Pirates of the Caribbean film, he’s mostly been playing the same goofy, bumbling character who wears a lot of makeup. Whether it be The Lone Ranger, Alice in Wonderland or any of the Pirates sequels, he’s given some great comedic performances, but the roles simply don’t flex his acting chops. Black Mass is a return to more serious fare for Depp and he’s really quite good in the film. Unfortunately, aside from Depp’s performance, there isn’t much here that hasn’t been done before in countless other gangster movies. Scott Cooper’s direction is serviceable, albeit uninspired, and the true story that the film is based off of doesn’t offer enough interesting developments to generate much excitement.

In 1975, South Boston is controlled by the Winter Hill Gang, an organized crime syndicate led by James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). Bulger is approached by John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who asks Bulger for help in taking down a rival crime organization. At first Bulger scoffs at the idea, but he eventually realizes that this might be the only way for him to gain as much control over his territory as he desires. Connolly tells Bulger that the FBI will choose to ignore Bluger’s crimes if he helps them out and doesn’t kill anybody in the process. But as the Winter Hill Gang grows more and more powerful, Bulger’s sadistic desires become more and more prominent.

Pretty much the only aspect of Black Mass that’s actually worth discussing is Johnny Depp’s performance. While I may be exaggerating a bit with that statement (Joel Edgerton’s performance is actually really good as well), Depp is essentially the only one that is able to inject life into this otherwise by-the-numbers tale. Wearing a ton of makeup, he’s almost unrecognizable as the balding gangster. His blue eyes seem to pierce right through everybody that he looks at and it’s clear that Bulger is never messing around. This is no more apparent than in a scene where a close confidant of Bulger’s discusses a secret family recipe. At first the man refuses to tell Bulger how he marinates his steaks, but after a few prods from Bulger, the man gives up the details. This causes Bulger to question that man’s loyalty; if he’ll give up a family secret in just a few seconds, how quick will he be to turn on Bulger?

But other than a few brief moments of intensity, the rest of the film plays fairly straight and doesn’t really do anything good or bad. It’s a film where you’ll find your attention waning because it hits every single beat that’s become so familiar with this genre. Bulger’s involvement with the FBI and Connolly’s descent into the criminal underworld are two of the most interesting aspects of the film, but I would have liked the filmmakers to explore these aspects of the film more. Instead, we get a first hour that sets everything up in typical gangster fashion, only to offer a few sequences that are actually interesting. But even when Black Mass is wading through mediocrity, it’s Johnny Depp that makes everything worthwhile. You can’t take your eyes off of his sadistic performance and you won’t want to.

Black Mass receives 2.5/4

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