It’s fair to say there hasn’t been a truly great crime epic in years. Where once cinema was dotted with them on a regular basis (‘The Godfather’, ‘Goodfellas’, ‘The Departed’...), the last one that everyone can agree was a slam dunk involved a guy fighting crime as a bat and a lunatic with green hair. Scott Cooper’s ‘Black Mass’ certainly sets itself up as the next to take the crown, tackling one of the most notorious and controversial crime lords in US history. From a purely technical level, it seems to be doing everything right. As a film though, ‘Black Mass’ falls short of the mark, even though it is achingly close.
The film chronicles the career of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), a Boston criminal who, over the course of the 70s and 80s, fashioned himself into one of the most violent men in Boston’s history. What makes Whitey Bulger’s story unusual is his relationship with FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend who used Bulger as an informant on other criminals and in return provided him information that helped him in his rise to power. It’s an enormous story covering a labyrinth of allegiances, deals and violent crimes, all of which seem a perfect fit for cinema. However, much like J.C. Chandor’s ‘A Most Violent Year’ (2014), fascinating character study can’t overcome how slight the story turns out to be. The material is definitely fascinating, but the careful, contained manner in which Cooper lays out the film leads you to believe that an explosive finale is on the way. There are great set pieces in the film, but overall it doesn’t culminate in the kind of reckoning it leads you to believe it will. It’s hard to fault the film on a technical level - Cooper’s direction is taut, the tone is menacing and enormous enough to justify the film’s powerful name, and it looks gorgeous - but the material never quite matches the slickness of the film depicting it.
The cast is uniformly excellent (and another reason to see the film), but it’s hard to properly assess Johnny Depp’s work in it. There’s little doubt this is one of his finest performances in years, detailed and nuanced enough to remind us of just how impressive an actor he is, but once again this work is hidden under layers of unnecessary make-up that doesn’t even make him look any more like the real Bulger. It gets in the way of the performance, so ghoulish that it’s hard to find the sympathy for Bulger that the film is clearly striving for.
There are flashes of brilliance in ‘Black Mass’ that definitely make it worth your time, but these flashes aren’t a case where you see what the film could have been. Regardless of Scott Cooper’s dedication and imagination with the material, there just isn’t enough in Bulger’s story to give the film the weight it needs. What we get is undoubtedly a thoroughly entertaining and haunting crime epic, but certainly not a great one. That one about the guy fighting crime dressed as a bat keeps the crown for the time being.
PICTURE & SOUND
One of the highlights of ‘Black Mass’ is its gorgeous cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi, and this Blu-ray release from Roadshow captures this great work beautifully in high definition. The 1080p 2.40:1 transfer recreates the careful use of dark tones and textures without sacrificing any detail or clarity. The few moments of striking colour really pop out, and the clarity of the image help to emphasise the handsome visual work in the film. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is likewise excellent, beautifully balanced and understated which preserves the original design intentions. In particular, Tom Holkenborg’s haunting score sounds terrific.
There are flashes of brilliance in ‘Black Mass’ that definitely make it worth your time, but these flashes aren’t a case where you see what the film could have been.
The disc features a small collection of well-made featurettes covering the film and its background. ‘Black Mass: Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime’ (23:00) offers a general overview of the making of the film, featuring all the key players. It does add some clarity to the intentions behind the film, but makes it all the more frustrating that the film itself never achieves them. ‘Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger' (12:24) looks at the actor's transformation into Bulger. He shows the expected intelligence and thought you’d expect, but this featurette further emphasises that the make-up designs don’t actually make Depp look much like Bulger, as much as they think it does. The highlight of the set is ‘The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger’ (1:01:38), which covers the events after the film, featuring interviews with witnesses and investigators involved in Bulger’s capture. Unfortunately, even though this part of the story was shot for the film (including a performance by Sienna Miller), those deleted scenes aren’t included on the disc.