By Tom Meek
“Black Mass,” the long-awaited cinematic tale of Boston’s own public enemy No. 1 – mobster Whitey Bulger – is a mixed bag, full of diamonds in the rough and a few precious gems. In crime terms, it’s a routine hit on a midlevel bagman carried out with gusto and flourish, but what’s most winning is the spot-on execution by Johnny Depp as Bulger. It’s part Jack Nicholson, part Ray Liotta and 100 percent convincing. The other actors stand tall as well, delivering big in supporting roles that deepen the depiction of the bloody mayhem that ran rampant in South Boston for 20 years starting in 1995, as Bulger’s role as an FBI informant allowed him to commit murder with the full knowledge of his handlers.
The story of how Bulger undermined the North End Mafia and rose up to became the city’s criminal kingpin, then vanished for almost 15 years, all while being the brother of Massachusetts’ most powerful politician, always seemed bigger than the papers it was printed on (or for the broad screens of the first generation of flat-screen TVs sold at Lechmere). Here, in the hands of director Scott Cooper, who did well with “Crazy Heart” (2008) and “Out of the Furnace” (2013), the narrative become a bit too broad to settle in and gel. It’s choked with details and not enough nuance. That’s understandable in part because it is based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill (since retitled “Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal”), but still, screenwriters Jez Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”) and Mark Mallouk never free themselves and take chances. The framework of FBI interrogations, whether in the now or in flashbacks, doesn’t add much; it only cuts into Depp’s screen time as his steely-eyed Whitey and his posse off gruesomely anyone who looks at them the wrong way. There’s also the late development in which O’Neill and Lehr drop in as Bernstein and Woodward on the case. Continue reading →