“Black Mass” stands tall

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“Black Mass”, the third film by director Scott Cooper, is the latest addition to an ever-growing list of top-notch mobster movies, and the second to star the oh so charismatic Johnny Depp (who played the part of an FBI agent infiltrating the mob in his 1997 role as Donnie Brasco in “Donnie Brasco”). Unfortunately, with the upper echelons of this genre being filled with such incredible classics like “Goodfellas,” “The Departed” and “The Godfather,” it takes massive amounts of talent to be considered on the same level of “good” as so many other films. In this case, “Black Mass” barely hits the mark.

Like a modern day “Goodfellas”, “Black Mass” follows the real life story of South Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) from when he started gaining power to his inevitable arrest some 30 odd years later. All while FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is helping him in exchange for the information he needs to take down the mafia, and his brother William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) runs for Senate.

With a powerhouse cast containing the likes of Depp, Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, and Kevin Bacon, it’s no wonder the characters were phenomenal. Edgerton and Depp stood out the most, giving deep and powerful performances from start to finish. Though impeded slightly by obvious age makeup and piercing blue contacts (that sadly detracted from Depp’s normal, highly expressive visage), Johnny Depp gave a performance that was haunting and tense. He may not be raking in any awards for the performance, but the nominations will surely be deserved. Unfortunately, stellar acting can’t save poor suspense and weak character arcs.

As most crime dramas about murderers are won’t to do, every other scene seems to contain a death or murder. This can be done in most “true story” films very well, as most (again, like “Goodfellas”) maintain an air of suspense that makes the audience feel that there is real danger for the characters. “Black Mass” doesn’t seem to do this at all. Each subsequent murder (whether it was committed by Depp or not) seemed obvious and expected. It certainly detracted from tone of the film, making any potentially intense scene stale and boring. For the most part though, this fact isn’t as obvious since the acting is good enough to carry the weight of these failures. It’d be even better though, if there was just more of that acting.

Though the performances by the entire cast were above average, it is obvious that no character was dealt with as much as they should have been. To put it another way: there is a reason that the most famous mobster movies (like the aforementioned “Goodfellas”) are at least 25 minutes longer than “Black Mass,” if not longer (“The Godfather” being the longest, almost an hour more than “Black Mass”). These films rely so heavily on exposition and character development it’s almost impossible to imagine them being any less than two hours, and “Black Mass” hits that mark just barely with a running time of 122 minutes. In that amount of time, Cooper managed to completely build up Connolly, giving Edgerton the most complete arc and best opportunity to showcase his talent. Depp had gave an equal performance, though he’s no stranger to the role, as he played a similar (albeit perfectly opposite) roll in the aforementioned “Donnie Brasco.” When it comes to the other actors, it seems almost a shame that Cumberbatch wasn’t given more time to work with his character, which seems surprising considering the actor’s popularity and the character’s real world importance. Another shortcoming of the time constraints meant that some characters seemed to bleed into each other, becoming mildly confusing and more or less unimportant. If an extra 10 minutes had been added to develop these characters (that appear throughout the entire film) even a little bit more, “Black Mass” could have been the next “The Departed.” Be that as it may, the movie stands strong by itself and certainly warrants praise, despite the immense shadow cast upon it by it’s predecessors.

At the end of the day, certain genres of film just happen to contain cinematic milestones that may never be topped by any other film any time soon. In this way it can be nearly impossible to objectively review new works, when there is so much to compare them too. However, “Black Mass” is good enough to at least enter the list of “mob classics” even if it may not rank that high. When the movies above you are considered some of the best in all of cinema, being “good” may just be great.