Before I get started, I have a confession to make. There are only two reasons why I saw this movie: Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch. Upon hearing the news that two of my absolute favorite actors would be playing brothers in a crime drama based on a true story, I wasted no time in adding "Black Mass" to the list of my most anticipated films of the year. After a three-year streak of box office flops and self-parodic performances, it is wonderful to see Depp return to the top of his game, even if this dramatic vehicle he performs so well in goes down many familiar and uninspired roads.
Set in 1975 South Boston and spanning over a decade, "Black Mass" tells the story of Irish-American crime boss, James "Whitey" Bulger (Depp). In an effort to eliminate mafia activity in Boston, Bulger's old friend and now FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) proposes an alliance between Bulger and himself. Together, the men climb the ranks in their respected professions as the FBI clears the streets of Whitey's Italian-American enemies. But as Bulger's grip on criminal activity grows stronger over the years, so do his psychopathic tendencies, causing his alliance with Connolly and the FBI to become shaky and sending the two childhood friends down a path from which there is no return.
"Black Mass" is most certainly Depp's film from start to finish. There is not a single second of his screen time where anyone in the audience will be able to resist his magnetic gaze. To see Depp restrain himself is also something of a miracle, since the man has played quirky characters a bit too often, thanks to his success as Captain Jack Sparrow. His performance as Whitey Bulger may not be as memorable as some of his earlier work, but it is without a doubt, one of his best to date. Other actors in the film worth mentioning are, Edgerton, fresh from his astounding directorial debut, "The Gift," Dakota Johnson ("Fifty Shades of Grey"), as Bulger's girlfriend, and Julianne Nicholson, as Connolly's wife. As for Benedict Cumberbatch, he nails the Boston accent, but unfortunately his role as Senator Billy Bulger hardly factors into the main narrative.
In terms of the film itself, it's not bad, but there isn't a whole lot to be impressed by, nor is there anything fresh that director Scott Cooper does to reel viewers in. Those who have seen "GoodFellas" will find it mildly frustrating that "Black Mass" borrows some of the former's thematic elements, and that it even contains scenes incredibly similar to those from Martin Scorsese's classic. Cooper does find something of a brooding tone that echoes throughout the film, but it does little to generate intrigue and it does not add much to the film's more violent moments. The overall effort feels hollow, with Cooper's procedural style dampening the dramatic effects of this fact-based story. If there is any other commendable aspect other than the stellar cast, then it is the film's deep, string-based score composed by Tom Holkenborg, whose past work on "Mad Max: Fury Road" should not go unnoticed.
For those who were hoping that "Black Mass" would kick off this year's awards season in marvelous fashion, they will have to wait a few weeks or so for a truly Oscar-worthy contender. Depp may score some nominations for his remarkably sinister turn, but there is nothing else in the film worthy of generating Oscar buzz. For those simply looking for something old-fashioned with praise-worthy acting, "Black Mass" fits the bill.