Probably the most surprising thing about this calculatedly gritty, thin-line-between-cops-and-criminals drama is how un-Johnny Depp Johnny Depp is in it. As notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, he is almost unrecognizable, not only under a hair-and-makeup disguise but also thanks to a tempering of the outsized mannerisms that have come to characterize his onscreen persona in recent years. There’s nothing showy, thank god, about his embodiment of the sociopath whose bloody reign of terror in the Boston underworld lasted from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s; this is by far the most Depp (Mortdecai) has ever disappeared into a role, and it’s a pleasure to behold, for all that he is portraying a terrible excuse for a human being. The film around him is familiar, though. This is basically The Departed, which was inspired by this true story, times GoodFellas: FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton: The Gift) colludes to protect his childhood friend as Bulger, from Irish South Boston, takes out his Italian-mob rivals and consolidates his many criminal enterprises. This once small-time crook goes big-time with FBI help, which may have even initially been unwitting on Connolly’s part, though that would make him the dumbest federal agent ever; kudos to Edgerton for his ambiguity in this regard. Anyway, director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) pulls off a solid enough execution (no pun intended) with an impressive cast of actors who are always enjoyable to watch — Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, and, in the usual thankless wives-and-hookers roles, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple, and Dakota Johnson — doing yeoman’s work. Probably the second most surprising thing about Black Mass is that it never descends into inadvertent pantomine, which is always a danger for a film so wiggy, so accenty — Cumberbatch’s Bawhstin drawl as Bulger’s politician brother is almost disconcerting — and, in the 1970s sections, so alarmingly avocado green. If you like these kinds of stories, you’ll like this one. But it doesn’t have anything new to add to our understanding of why men like these guys behave so despicably.
viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival