Cinema Dispatch: Black Mass

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Black Mass and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by Scott Cooper

We’re finally in Oscar season, right?  I mean Straight Outta Compton was a huge hit, but this is the first one that Hollywood studios are actually pushing for some Academy nods.  We’ve got a big name actor playing a dark character in an organized crime biopic!  Hell, the only way it could have more Oscar appeal is if it was set in World War 2!  Still, Hollywood doesn’t always get it right when the make big Oscar films (look no further than The Judge from last year) and Johnny Depp has had a PRETTY hard time of it lately (again, look no further than Transcendence from last year).  Will this movie be the critical hit that Johnny Deep needs at this point in his career, or will this biopic get lost in the shuffle once the other big films of the season start coming out in earnest?  Let’s find out!!

The movie is about James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) who rose to the top of the Boston crime world due to the fact that was an FBI informant and was getting protection from them as he helped them take down the Italian mob.  Once the Italian’s were out the way though, Whitey became just as big a nuisance for the city, only HE had a federal organization who was at least somewhat hesitant to reveal their own involvement with him so he ran pretty much rampant for a good twenty years (1975-1995).  Presumably the story is a lot more complex with a lot more people involved, but for this movie the main players are Whitey himself, his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) who was the President of the Massachusetts senate at the time, and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who grew up with Whitey and became the FBI agent that got him involved as an informant.  Needless to say that having these three working together (to some capacity) creates a neigh unstoppable force as each party is protecting the other to some extent and the trio (John less so than the rest who seems to be a SOMEWHAT legitimate politician) make a WHOLE lot of money.  The gravy train can’t ride forever though as the rest of the world starts to close in and Whitey’s actions become more erratic over time.  Will these men get the comeuppance they deserve, or will they be able to escape whatever’s coming after to them once they take things too far?  Well it’s a biopic so you can look up the answers right now, but then why would you want to spoil the fun?

You do NOT want to spoil this guy’s fun.

You do NOT want to spoil this guy’s fun.

I think the movie is good, but compared to the movies that it has most in common with it ends up falling short.  It just feels like things are missing from the movie to give it the kind of impact it wants to have, and the narrative is all over the place in a way the belies whatever they wanted this story to be about.  A lot of biopics fall into that realm where they have to cover a long span of time and somehow cobble together a compelling narrative out of whatever events they feel are necessary.  Movies like Raging Bull and even Amadeus have been able to pull this kind of narrative off wonderfully because of tight editing and focused central theme.  Raging Bull was at all times about the character of Jake LaMotta so while events were happening, we didn’t feel we lost important details in between the cuts.  Amadeus wasn’t trying to be so much a biopic as it was about the hatred that Salieri felt towards Mozart, and so the scenes chosen to show about their lives were in service to that end.  This movie and many other biopics run into issues when it’s trying to both tell the story of THIS character as well as the history that surrounded them, so we get scenes that focus on Whitey’s relationships with his friends and family but then get lots of scenes where we’re dealing with the FBI and lots of voice over narration about how his empire was growing.  I think it does succeed when it’s about Whitey (and the FBI scenes aren’t bad either) but everything involving his rise to power is just hand waved and I kept feeling like I was missing important details.  For example, form the very beginning of the movie they talk about “Vending Machines”.  Every single time someone starts doing narration about how much more powerful Whitey was getting at that point in the story, they mention that he was controlling more and more “Vending Machines”.  Now I’m guessing that means drug dealers, but the movie never lets us know for certain.  Hell, I was convinced early on that his “legit” business was owning a vending machine company and that he just muscled everyone else out.

“No one’s gonna drink that piss water you call Fresca.  No one, until Whitey FUCKING Bulger tells them to.”

“No one’s gonna drink that piss water you call Fresca.  No one, until Whitey FUCKING Bulger tells them to.”

Speaking of narration, the narrative structure in this is weird.  The movie is actually a confessional from three of his main cronies who have been caught and are turning states evidence against Whitey by telling his story.  In fact, the movie starts out with Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons who many of you may know as Meth Damon) talking to an agent (FBI I think) and agreeing to testify against Whitey.  This is now the first time we go back to when Whitey was active and yet it starts off with Kevin being a loyal bouncer for Whitey who won’t let some rambunctious individuals enter the bar.  I was certain at this point that the movie was actually going to be told through Kevin’s eyes which would have been an interesting angle to take it.

“Can I trust you to do what needs to be done?”     “Sure thing Mr. Whitey.”

“Can I trust you to do what needs to be done?”     “Sure thing Mr. Whitey.”

Soon into the movie though, he’s pretty much dropped into a supporting character role and then twenty minutes AFTER that, we cut back to the present to find out that another one of Whitey’s associates (it’s either Steve Flemmi played by Rory Cochrane or Johnny Martorano played by W Earl Brown) is now the one telling the story to the agent.  It never makes sense for the movie to be told this way and serves as a distraction more than anything else.  MAYBE if it was something like Citizen Kane where the person asking all his associates was part of the story it would have worked, but it feels too underdeveloped to be used effectively.  So the movie feels like a cliffs notes of Whitey’s life and the way they tell it to us is kind of obnoxious.  Because of this, the movie just kind of lags at points and always kept me at arm’s length from the characters.  To move towards the positives, the acting across the board is pretty spot on.  Pretty much everyone in the cast does a great job here and really does bring some authenticity to the movie and its setting.  There are however two exceptions here that don’t necessarily give a BAD performance, but they feel really out of place here.  Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t in the movie a whole lot, but he does do a great job with the role… other than his voice.  I don’t know what the hell he was doing but it sounded absolutely ridiculous.  Maybe he just can’t lose his British accent or he flat out can’t do a Boston accent, but it feels like a weird amalgam of the two and it’s a distraction every time you hear it.

‘Ello!  I’m da head of the Massachusetts Parlia- I mean SENATE, and I’m from BAASTAN!!

‘Ello!  I’m da head of the Massachusetts Parlia- I mean SENATE, and I’m from BAASTAN!!

Similarly, Joel Edgerton’s character feels out of place as an FBI agent.  At first I kind of get what he’s doing in that he’s still fresh out of the academy and hasn’t really assimilated with the rest of the department, but his over the top accent and stupid hair just feel more and more out of place as the movie goes along.  I have no idea if this is how the real John Connolly carried himself like this when he was in the FBI, but he nothing about his performance indicates that he was actually an FBI agent and was instead some punk kid in a suit.

“Did you file the proper paperwork when you made Bulger an informant?”     “Uh…”     “have you kept records of all his recent activety?”     “Uh…”     “Uh…”     “Have you done ANYTHING useful since you got here!?”     “Let me see if my supervisor is available.”     “I AM YOUR SUPERVISOR!!!”

“Did you file the proper paperwork when you made Bulger an informant?”     “Uh…”     “have you kept records of all his recent activety?”     “Uh…”     “Uh…”     “Have you done ANYTHING useful since you got here!?”     “Let me see if my supervisor is available.”     “I AM YOUR SUPERVISOR!!!”

Other than those two, the acting is solid with Johnny Depp giving a fantastic performance as the kingpin of Boston.  As much as we make fun of him for Tonto, Willy Wonka, that stupid dance thing in Alice and Wonderland, he really is a fantastic actor and he proves it here with a role that’s really against type for him.  Sure he played Dillinger in Public Enemies, but that was a much more charismatic and showy role than the more reserved Whitey Bulger.  The guy is a commanding presence and definitely does have a certain amount of charisma, but he also has a frightening intensity to everything he does which helps this movie from being dull at least when he’s on screen.  The violence as well is very well shot with a sadistic edge to it that makes the on screen deaths appropriately off-putting.  There’s a lot of bullet holes in people, some characters beg for their life, and some of the more gruesome deaths just take so long to get done with that you feel trapped in this small circle of hell for way too long.  In fact, that’s kind of its greatest strength in that it’s VERY gritty and unflinching with it darker moments and the tone overall is mournful and unpleasant in a way that gets across the depravity of the world these people lived in.

“Oh quit being a wussy and take your punishment like a man!!”

“Oh quit being a wussy and take your punishment like a man!!”

Really, the biggest thing this movie has going against it is that it’s trying to muscle in on a genre that’s ruled by giants and has aspirations to be among their ranks.  It’s not as iconic as The Godfather or Goodfellas, and isn’t as fun as Scarface, Reservoir Dogs, the Usual suspects, among others.  Hell, even compared to the other big biopic of the moment, Straight Outta Compton, this one still falls a bit flat.  While they are flawed in very similar ways (the second half of Straight Outta Compton feels edited half to death), that one at least had a unique story to tell about people who HAVEN’T been the subject of hundreds of other movies.  When you’re making a film about gangsters you really gotta bring something new to the table.  Of course, we do have to address the OTHER film that takes inspiration from Whitey Bulger.  While this movie is actually true to his story, it’s not even close to as enjoyable or memorable as Scorsese’s The Departed where Jack Nicholson’s character was inspired by Bulger even though the story was based on a Chinese film called Infernal Affairs.  Still, that’s about as high a bar as you can hope to achieve what with maybe the greatest director of all time working with some of the greatest actors of all time.  Ultimately, Black Mass feels like it’s going for that level of acclaim (maybe taking itself more seriously than its counterpart) but it ends up falling short.  Not a bad movie, but definitely a flawed one and just a bit disappointing.  Temper your expectations and you’ll more than likely enjoy it, but it’s not quite the film everyone involved with this hoped it would be.

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If you like this review and plan on buying the movie, then use the Amazon link below!  I’ll get a percentage of the order it helps keep things going for me here at The Reviewers Unite!  In fact, you don’t even need to buy the item listed!  Just use the link, shop normally, and when you check out it will still give us that sweet, sweet, percentage!  You can even bookmark the link and use it every time you shop!  HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?

Black Mass (Blu-ray+ DVD + UV)

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