Actors Turn up the Heat in ‘Black Mass’

Joel Edgerton-Johnny Depp as Whitey BulgerAnyone who
admires great performances will want to see Black
, if only to savor the work of Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, and Benedict
Cumberbatch in the leading roles. Together they offer a tour de force that
shouldn’t be missed.

Having seen Joe Berlinger’s
compelling documentary Whitey: The United
States of America vs. James J. Bulger
last year, I feared that I’d be
comparing every incident with the true-life account, but that was never an
issue for me. On the contrary, director Scott Cooper and his screenwriters
(Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) take us inside the story and behind closed
doors to dramatize what could only be spoken about in the documentary.

Joel Edgerton as John Connolly

In terms of
movie fodder, and the gangster-movie genre, Black
reminds us that truth is not only stranger than fiction: it can be
much more outlandish. Only the most fanciful writer would dream up a saga where
a ruthless Boston crime lord literally gets away with murder because he
maintains a secret alliance with the FBI.

Joel Edgerton
does a great job as John Connolly, the slick, ambitious Federal agent who
persuades Bulger that serving as an informant for the government will accrue to
his benefit and then does an elaborate tap-dance to convince his superiors—over
a span of years—that he’s right, even when the results become openly
embarrassing. Aussie Edgerton is colorful and credible as a Bostonian, matched
by Cumberbatch, a talented Brit who also scores as Bulger’s brother, a
respected state senator who keeps an arm’s length from his notorious sibling. Their
Boston accents and attitudes are right on the money.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger

From the
outset, Black Mass has all the
ingredients of a great gangster saga: rivalries, schemes, betrayals, and bursts
of violence. Towering over the proceedings is Johnny Depp, who brings his
A-game to the role of Bulger, including a major physical transformation. We see
first-hand what he’s capable of as a devoted family man, a resident of the
tight-knit neighborhood known as Southie, and a leader who brooks no signs or
even hints of disloyalty. If others rule with an iron fist, he uses a sledgehammer—but
dispatches his flunkies to wield it.

filmmakers have trod this Boston turf with considerable success in recent years
but Black Mass never feels shopworn. Cooper
gets the most from his locations and a strong ensemble led by Kevin Bacon,
Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons,
W. Earl Brown, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, and Corey Stoll.

Black Mass may not break new ground in
the gangster genre but it tells its story with vigor and panache—and offers
juicy parts to some of the most talented actors working today.



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May 2024