'Black Mass' Review: Johnny Depp Can't Save This Cliché-Ridden Crime Drama

If you've never seen a crime drama in your life, or alternately are so enamored of crime dramas that you'll find anything involving cops and robbers inherently fascinating, you may enjoy Black Mass.

If you're a Johnny Depp fan that's been waiting years for the slightest suggestion of a comeback, you should probably watch Black Mass.

If none of these apply to you, well, you don't need to go out of your way avoid Black Mass, but there's no good reason for you to subject yourself to it, either. 

Scott Cooper appears to have made Black Mass under the assumption that his work was half done the moment he jotted the words "Boston-set crime drama" on a notepad. The genre guarantees violent deaths, gritty backdrops, heavy themes of loyalty and betrayal, and big-name actors frowning impressively. With all that going for the movie already, he seems to figure, there's no need to bother with such trivialities as character development or narrative stakes. He mistakes slowness for seriousness, inconsistency for complexity, and telling for showing, and makes little attempt to add anything new to this shopworn genre.

Depp plays real-life James "Whitey" Bulger, known to his friends as Jimmy, who comes to rule the Boston underworld in the 1970s and 1980s. His meteoric rise is aided by his childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), now an FBI agent. Bulger slips intel about his rivals to Connolly so the feds can arrests them; Bulger's left with fewer and fewer rivals, while Connolly gets to look like a hero at work. The arrangement works pretty well until the early '90s, when the authorities begin sniffing around both men.

The good news is that Whitey is indeed Depp's best performance in years. However, it's less a return to form than a small step in the general direction of form. As usual, Depp leans heavily on makeup and accent work to sell his character. But at least he keeps the tics to a minimum this time, and tries to bring more to his character than just a series of quirks. In flashes, he's even brilliant. A pair of scenes set at Connolly's house give Depp an opportunity to radiate a paradoxically repulsive charisma, and it's impossible to look away.

Alas, most of his work here would be easier to appreciate if he weren't wearing those prosthetics at all. Aging actresses often claim in interviews to avoid Botox because they can't practice their craft if their faces are frozen. Depp spends the whole movie looking like he's come fresh from the clinic. The film tries to sell it as a character choice: Whitey is just such a cool customer that he doesn't emote a lot. But it's not terribly convincing once you notice that his makeup artist has thoughtfully painted wrinkles across Whitey's forehead despite the fact that Whitey can't actually move his forehead.

Outside of Depp, Black Mass plays at times like an acting showcase. A well-liked character actor will pop up, get a few minutes to show off their skills, and then gracefully disappear. Some of them fare better than others. Edgerton (who has the meatiest role besides Depp) isn't bad, exactly, but especially during the third act, he seems to have flown in from a different, more cartoonish movie. Cumberbatch is halfway convincing as a JFK-like politician, but less so as a native Bostonian and not at all as Whitey's brother.

On the flip side, Juno Temple's hooker is onscreen for maybe five minutes, but for those five minutes she makes the movie a little bit brighter, a little bit livelier, a little more fun. (I wonder if Cooper, who seems allergic to fun, might have hated that.) Peter Sarsgaard is similarly effective as an unhinged criminal associate, and I found myself wondering if he should have played Bulger instead. Jesse Plemons, as another of Whitey's minions, brings humor and pathos to a nothing role, and Corey Stoll's excellent work as a no-nonsense FBI chief suggests we haven't been giving him enough leading roles.

None of them are enough to save the movie. Black Mass achieves a baseline level of competence, in that there's little about it that's distractingly bad. (Well, aside from most of the accents and some of the hair and makeup choices.) It's just dispiritingly lazy. Instead of fleshing out the world of South Boston, and showing us Whitey's place in it, it simply has a voiceover explain, "People loved Jimmy." Another voiceover explains what drives Connolly: "Like everyone, he was in awe of Jimmy."

Perhaps Black Mass could get away with such a lack of effort if it weren't so boring. It's not that nothing happens in Black Mass, but that even the most dramatic moments feel inconsequential. When Whitey murders a guy, which he does several times, that's the end of the story. There's no sense of how his actions affect his relationships, or his reputation, or his standing in the community, or his self-perception. When he suffers a shattering loss, we need yet another voiceover to tell us Whitey was "never the same," because there's no discernible difference in the man we see onscreen. Even the spurts of violence and rage feel like stuff we've already seen done better in The Departed, American Hustle, Goodfellas, and a million other crime dramas just like them. In the end, it's hard to feel much of anything about anything that happens onscreen.

After 122 minutes, you'll know everything that happened to Whitey, but be no closer to understanding who he is or what makes him tick. Depp seems to be putting in the work, but Cooper blunts his effectiveness by keeping him at a distance. What is it about power that gets Whitey off? How does he want to wield it? What do other people see in him? Why is he so hungry for it in the first place? Black Mass doesn't know, and doesn't care. It might as well be an expensively mounted adaptation of Bulger's Wikipedia page.