Given his recent record, it’s been a long time since anyone showed surprise when a new Johnny Depp film turns out to be a turkey. He’s been cruising on empty for too long, and with old age catching up, his days as a headlining megastar seem numbered. Black Mass was supposed to change this, or at least delay the inevitable, by giving Depp a role to sink his teeth into. He does a decent job as Boston crime lord James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, without delivering the triumph hoped for. Scott Cooper’s film is a watchable gangster effort, doing everything decently without excelling.

To play Whitey, Depp undergoes one of those physical transformations beloved of beautiful stars. With piercing blue eyes, the odd gold tooth and a comb-over, he’s certainly striking. Despite being the criminal mastermind, or at least the scariest thug, he’s not really the story. Far more interesting than Whitey and his gang of Boston hoodlums is the FBI collaboration that gave them control over the city. What started out as a good way to get dirt on the Italian mafia soon morphed into something more as Whitey’s handler, old school friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), goes rogue.

Cooper, director of two steady and unspectacular features previously, takes no chances here either. The bad guys hang out in dingy places with poor lighting, everyone loves their mother and speeches about loyalty are ten a penny. Employing a simple framing device – old colleagues ratting on him and narrating his story from the start – Cooper moves slowly from 1975 up to the present, charting the rise of Whitey’s little street gang via a partnership with the feds as he rises to king of the Boston underworld.

Besides Depp and Edgerton, there are plenty of jobs for the boys with roles for the likes of Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and even Benedict Cumberbatch who unconvincingly plays Whitey’s younger brother, State Senator Bill Bulger. Women are practically nowhere to be seen in this world, with the occasional cameo – Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicolson as wives, Juno Temple as a prostitute – pretty much all that’s available.

Despite receiving all the screen time, the men remain the same throughout. No one really changes over the course of the entire film, making it difficult to care for any of the characters. It’s not that anyone performs poorly, they just don’t have much to do. Even Depp, supposedly at the centre of the action, has only one note to play. His scary charm is effective, but it wears thin after two hours. It’s a further symptom of the film’s unwillingness to take any risks. All the characters have their assigned roles and never stray from them, stuck on a stationary arc in a dour setting straight out of urban crime 101.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Black Mass, nor is there much to call home about. It ticks the right boxes without going the extra mile needed to make this more than a slice of throwaway entertainment. Not quite the return to form promised, it does enough to keep the wolves at bay for now.

Director: Scott Cooper
Writers: Mark Mallouk (screenplay), Jez Butterworth (screenplay), 2 more credits »
Stars: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton
Runtime: 122 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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