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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Black Mass 2015 * * * 1/2 Stars

Black MassDirector: Scott Cooper
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch

Godfatheresque. Goodfellas: The Joe Pesci Story. A Mystic River makeover. These are the words I would use to describe Black Mass (the flick I'm about to review). Is it my pick for best of the year? So far. Will it sustain Academy Awards momentum right into 2016? That remains to be seen. Either way, it's a knockout, a small-time mob yarn with plenty of attitude. To quote the Standells, "love that dirty water, oh Boston you're my home".

The direction in Black Mass is pragmatic and crisp. And although I've never seen Scott Cooper's earlier work, I liked his 2013 release being the Christian Bale vehicle, Out of the Furnace. In "Furnace", Cooper made it all about the performances while letting the conveying sensibilities fall into narrow territory. With "Mass", he now gets everything just right. There's a flowing timeline from the year 1975 all the way up to 2011. It's safe to say that real-life gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, gets his rightful, Hollywood due (don't worry folks, this dude is still a despicable human being).

As for the lead, well Mr. Johnny Depp sports hair-raising contact lenses and a grayed-up, receding hairline. He plays the Bulger character the same way Daniel Day Lewis took over the proceedings in There Will Be Blood. Both troupers are in almost every frame, both of them hold the screen as if it's a thimble, and both are larger than life. Truth be told, Depp's been a bad guy in other films but for some reason, this is his most vicious turn I can think of. He's certainly not likable, you don't root for him (you don't really root for anybody in this thing), and when he strangles a teenage prostitute after posing as her confidant, it just breaks your heart. Honestly, Johnny boy goes so far down the rabbit hole with Bulger's intellect that you forgot it's actually him. Good old Edward Scissorhands is too nice of an actor to kill someone and then tell everybody he's about to take a nap. Right?

Anyway, "Mass" with its Bostonian setting, its multiple scenes of people dying in broad daylight, and its freewheeling, seventies soundtrack, runs mostly in flashback (this does in fact, work to its advantage). Nobody and I mean nobody, does gloom and doom or dirty and grubby like Scott Cooper. The present day sequences which are inserted throughout, involve FBI interrogations with various members of "Whitey's" delinquent crew (they are known as the Winter Hill Gang). Unabashedly, the movie begins in the mid 70's as it chronicles Bulger's rise via the criminal food chain in Southie. He's the upper echelon of savagery, he's a murderer, he's a drug dealer, and he becomes an eventual informant for the Feds. Why you ask? So he can take down a fellow mafia chain trying to cut in on his regional turf.

Now a lot of critics and audience members (around the world) have touted this cinematic conch as quote unquote, "Johnny Depp's movie" or "Johnny Depp's show". I have to digress. It's much more than that. Many great actors here fade in and out. That in no way diminishes the effect of "Black's" stagnant (and straight ahead) entertainment value. Benedict Cumberbatch plays effectively, Bulger's senator brother (William Bulger). Dakota Johnson is solid in a couple of scenes as his girlfriend and mother of his dying child. Then you have Kevin Bacon in rage mode playing a torn FBI boss (Mr. Charles McGuire). Finally, you get a quiet, off-kilter hitman in Rory Cochrane. As Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi ("Whitey's" right-hand man), he doesn't say much yet his screen presence gives off apprehension in the worst way.

So for what's it's worth, "Mass" has the cojones to kick in the door and possibly kick you in the teeth. It's a gangster pic scaled down to the bare minimum (for my money, that's a good thing). Bottom line: A great cast, a few Scorsese-like exterior shots, a top five performance from Depp, clean editing, and some tasty Massachusetts locales give you the final rub. Yeah it's violent, yeah it's unforgiving, and yeah it's altogether antagonistic. But Black Mass checks in as a winner pretty much the whole way. My rating: 3 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

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