“Black Mass”: so good, it’s criminal

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“Black Mass”: so good, it’s criminal

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Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” is easily the best crime-drama since “The Departed.”

Based on the New York Times bestselling book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob,” the film focuses on the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the infamous crime lord of Boston’s Irish Mob.

Coincidentally, Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed” was also loosely based on Bulger’s criminal exploits, but “Black Mass” is the first film to cinematize him with biographical detail. This makes sense, since the real Bulger was only recently caught in 2011. Hollywood was waiting for the natural conclusion of the story.

Cooper has donned the director’s hat twice before: for “Crazy Heart,” a romantic-drama, and for “Out of the Furnace,” another crime-drama. I’ve never seen “Out of the Furnace,” but “Crazy Heart” is a favorite of mine and, much like “Black Mass,” it excels as a film due to the same type of strong performances from the cast that Cooper is able to consistently elicit.

While “Black Mass” is above all a character-driven drama, it still contains its fair share of bloody gangland violence. Bulger and co.’s philosophy of murder is to do it quietly and out of sight, for, as Bulger counsels his son over breakfast: “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

Kudos to Depp for his performance as Bulger. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this impressed with his acting in any role, serious or otherwise. Depp’s Bulger is icy, from his cold stare to his disarming, calculating, psychopathic demeanor. His fairly consistent delivery of lines with a thick almost-but-not-quite Southie accent combined with the right amount of swagger in his body language to make me almost suspend my disbelief that this was really Whitey Bulger, the genuine article.

I’d be more forgiving of Depp’s accent if it wasn’t for the stellar performances of Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, Bulger’s FBI handler, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, Whitey’s Massachusetts state senator brother. Edgerton absolutely nailed it in terms of accent and facial expression. As for Cumberbatch, you would be really hard pressed to detect any trace of an English accent.
Perhaps if Depp wasn’t such a recognizable actor, even under all that makeup, the illusion would have been complete.

Speaking of which, the makeup department should be commended for the visual transformation of Depp into Bulger. In particular, the hair/baldness effects, the yellowed/browned teeth, and the piercing steel blue contact lenses did a lot to distract from Depp’s famous face. The flashforwards we see of the other older members of the Winter Hill Gang were also very convincing.

Masanobu Takayanagi, who previously worked with Cooper on “Out of the Furnace,” was responsible for the film’s satisfying but otherwise unremarkable cinematography. The visuals were what they needed to be and didn’t get in the way of the acting, the real core of the film. Precisely the same can be said of composer Tom Holkenborg’s ambient score.

“Black Mass” is a tense, well-paced, well-acted film that crime film aficionados and general audiences alike will eat up. It’s well worth the price of admission.

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