Monday, September 21, 2015


Black Mass Movie Review

While going to see Black Mass this weekend, I was reminded of a strange episode that took place many years ago in a Boston bookstore.  I overheard a customer asking a clerk if the store had other great books like the one he’d just read, which was ‘Black Mass’, about James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and his crooked alliance with the FBI, a  big seller in these parts by  Globe writers Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. The clerk suggested one about a New York mob boss, and the customer, who was a local sort with a bulbous red nose and a beer gut, raised his voice. “It has to be Boston,” he said. “I don’t want to read about no New York shit.”  I may have imagined it, but I think the guy’s lip was quivering.  That was Boston, for you: bookish, provincial, and slightly mental.   People here loved their local crime lords with the same reverence they had for the Red Sox. Local is local, after all.  Granted,  I don’t think Bulger means much to Boston these days.  Crime figures have gone the way of bookstores in this city. The store I’m remembering is long gone, replaced by one of those giant super pharmacies with a sushi bar next to the makeup counter.  As for Bulger, the last we saw of him was in a courtroom, where he was now a powerless old man in shackles. 

Johnny Depp stars in Black Mass as Bulger. He’s done a lot of press in recent weeks, and we’ve heard all about the 50 wigs he had to wear to achieve Whitey’s bulging forehead, and how he picked up the Boston accent by listening to his pal Joe Perry of Aerosmith.  Never mind that Perry is actually from Hopedale, and that the people in Boston movies all end up sounding like Elmer Fudd.  Depp was being a good soldier. Ever since those silly pirate movies he’s been drawing big paychecks as a MOVIE STAR, but after a series of stinkers the movie studios aren’t so sure about him. The truth is that Depp  isn’t a movie star, but rather, a weird little character actor who likes to play dress up.  That the pirate movies were financial sensations was a bit of a fluke, but somebody keeps shoving him out there like he's Will Smith. Seeing him on a recent talk show was an eye opener. He looked terrible; he was bloated, maybe missing a few teeth, as if the stardom game was wearing on him.  Still and all, he’s very good as Bulger, though the movie is mostly forgettable.  Sadly, if the movie dumps it at the box office, Depp gets the blame, which is unfair.

The story of Bulger, a small time South Boston hood who became an FBI informant and then, feeling untouchable because he had locked arms with FBI agent John Connolly, went on to kill several people and become Boston’s top crime boss, is such a tangle of subterfuge and rottenness that it took two screenwriters to strip it down to the essentials. But so much paring has gone on that that the movie feels like the Classic Comics version of Bulger’s life.  What is it ultimately about? I guess it shows what happens when a sociopath goes unchecked and unaccountable.  It’s also about how fame can corrupt. Connolly, working on a tip from Bulger, brings down a small time Mafia operator named Angiulo.  The movie, by the way, makes much more of Angiulo than he was in real life; the guy was a mob peon in the North End, not exactly Al Capone. Anyway, Connolly becomes an FBI golden boy.  He becomes a real jerk, too, talking back to his supervisors, the whole bit, stomping around the FBI offices like King Kong. “You’ve changed,” Connolly’s wife says. “You walk different. You’re getting manicures.” What actually happened was that Connolly, another Southie boy, became a sloppy imitation of Bulger. Connolly’s wife is shown in bed reading 'The Exorcist', which makes sense; her husband was possessed by a devil named Whitey.

For more than two hours we see people beaten to a pulp, shot in the head, strangled, tortured. Bulger’s knuckles are always red and torn from pounding on his enemies. Yet, it’s all surprisingly non-dramatic. Someone gets whacked, and then everyone sits down to eat a nice steak. The cavalier nature of these killers is supposed to shock us, but it all feels like stuff we’ve seen, with far more panache, in Martin Scorsese movies.  The only real tension comes when Connolly starts to realize that he’s protecting a full-on psycho. It’s fun to watch Connolly sweat and squirm when people grow suspicious of his relationship to Bulger.  But when he’s finally busted, he gives up without much fuss.  This, from Warner Bros., the same movie studio that gave us all of those great gangster movies with Cagney and Bogart, right up to Bonnie and Clyde and Goodfellas, feels anticlimactic.  Connolly shows more angst when another FBI agent suggests he and Bulger are gay lovers. He roars, turns blood red, and nearly brings the roof down.  Some of this energy could've been used in the movie's final 20 minutes, where the whole thing starts to sag.

Director Scott Cooper is competent but not adventurous enough to make Black Mass into the great movie it could have been. He likes static shots of Boston at night, and follows the same worn path of every other director to shoot a film in Boston, namely, shooting key scenes in front of famous Boston landmarks. Some of the choices struck me as utterly ridiculous,  especially when Bulger and Connolly get into a heated argument at, of all places, the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Southie. I doubt that Boston’s most famous crook and FBI agent would put on such a display where all of Southie could see them. It made for an arresting visual, that with the band marching by as Bulger and Connolly hissed at each other, but it defied logic. Later, when the two are having a discussion at what looked like Boston Harbor, I began to wonder why the entire movie wasn’t filmed at The New England Aquarium, or the men’s room at the Boston Public Library.

Strangely, the movie doesn’t bother approximating the squalor of Boston in the 1970s. Black Mass seems to take place in an airbrushed Boston, the streets and homes looking far too clean to produce vermin like Bulger and his cronies. There’s a bit where Bulger walks down an alley to blackjack a rival, and the alley looks pristine. I don’t get it. Where’s the garbage? Where are the empty Chinese food cartons? Did Cooper and his team not take a moment to research the time and place they were supposed to reconstruct? Or were they satisfied with Depp’s connection to Aerosmith?

Depp undoubtedly had a great time playing Bulger.  He struts like a bantam rooster, looks as gaunt as Nosferatu, and pulls some good crazy faces.  His eyes are icy blue, like he borrowed Ray Liotta’s.  He’s so tightly coiled that we believe him when he tells a future victim, “Take your best shot, because then I’m gonna eat ya.”  The problem is that Black Mass has a split focus. It’s about Bulger, but it’s also about Connolly. And it turns out that Connolly is not only more interesting than Bulger, but the actor playing him, Joel Edgerton, is just as good, if not better, than Depp. I left the theater thinking about Connolly, and I’m not sure if that was Warner Bros’ plan. There are other good performances. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger's brother Billy, a powerful political presence in Boston, as a tightlipped man caught in the middle of his brother's dirty life. Rory Cochrane plays Bulger henchman Stephen Flemmi as if the weight of his actions are crushing him. I also liked Jesse Plemons as Bulger goon Kevin Weeks. Weeks has gone on record saying that he hated the movie. Too much swearing, he said, and too many facts were fudged. He also complained that Plemons played him “like I had Down syndrome.”  Only in America can you do five years in prison for taking part in murders, and then complain that the movie about you stinks. Actually, I think Plemons was a convincing Southie dirtbag.  Kevin Bacon, though, as an FBI suit, sounded like he was doing a bad impression of Alex Rocco.

A lot of money was put into Black Mass, and Warner Bros is hoping that audiences of 2015 still want, as they did in the 1930s, to look at gangsters in action, to stare up at the evil on the screen and live vicariously through the bad guy’s swagger and toughness, but to eventually go home with the message that crime doesn’t pay. Like an old Warners’ drama, Bulger is even shown being kind to his mother and old ladies. He even has some funny lines. It’s as if Cooper, Depp, and Warner Bros hope that, deep down, we might find Bulger charming. Depp, in one of his appearances to hype the movie, said that he tried to play Bulger as a human being, not a monster. He needn’t have worried, because we’re still a country that loves a maddog killer. Our bookstores may be vanishing, but not much else has changed since The Public Enemy.


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