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“Take your shot but make it your best. ‘Cause I get up, I eat ya.”

Johnny Depp is a chameleon, his take on the Mad Hatter or Tonto may be panned, but he is able to shift his exterior to fit whatever the film desires. While lacking in the drug-induced extremities of Alice in Wonderland or the insensitive qualities of The Lone Ranger, he is disappearing again into a role — this time to some of his best results.

In Black Mass, he is Whitey Bulger. It is easy to remember that Depp is behind the make-up and work, but too many times he makes you forget. He enters with a quiet gusto and grapes the attention of the room as if he is clinching his fist. It isn’t Depp escaping into a extravagant guise, it is the actor commanding our gaze for the first time in years.

But while Depp demands respect throughout the entire runtime, Black Mass loses us with expected turns and uncreative movements that reminds us that we’ve taken this ride before — to much better results.

Black Mass tells the story of Bulger, an infamous criminal who violently ran the streets of South Boston during the 80s and early 90s. His brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), was a well-respected state senator and his friend was John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent. During his reign, Bulger became an informant for Connolly and the FBI in order to help take down the Mafia, who he thought was invading his turf.

Director Scott Cooper drops us into the underbelly of Boston crime swiftly, introducing us to Bulger’s crew and the acts that helped to strike fear in the minds of their enemies. Cooper tells the story using flashbacks through interviews with Bulger’s associates with Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), and John Martorano (W. Earl Brown) doing a lot of the brunt work.

But at the head is Depp as Bulger. His eyes cut like knives whenever he darts them back and forth, going warm and approachable before squeezing the life out of the people getting in his way. Depp completely dissolves into the role, making every moment he is on screen count. The same can be said for Edgerton, who plays Connolly sly and cocky — scheming his way to the top with the help of his childhood friends.

The cast is riddled with strong members — Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Peter Skarsgard — yet most of them feel miscast, none more so than a recent Best Actor nominee.

Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t poor as Billy, but he never slips into the role. In what feels more like a producer putting the big name star in the cast because he was able to bag him, Cumberbatch feels misplaced as a straight out of Boston senator, fumbling through a awkward accent and forcing chemistry between himself and Depp.

This uninspired feeling clouds over Black Mass, wasting one of the performances of the year from Depp on a script that is riddled with something we’ve seen before. Not only gangster movies, but Boston crime movies. Black Mass never makes its mark plot-wise or cinematically, waiting until Depp graces the screen again to remind us why we’re here.

It is never bad, and it shows that Cooper definitely has talent as he has shown in Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, but it never feels inspired to make a mark within the genre and is too happy going through the motions to become anything noteworthy.

Ironic — because for someone like Depp, who we have written off as uninspired for years now, he gives his most invigorated performance in awhile. Too bad the rest of the movie didn’t get the memo.

6/10

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Zach Dennis is a contributor for Cut Print Film and co-host of The News Reel Podcast.

  • I like that Depp’s not just acting the makeup, which is what Steve Carell hide behind last year in Foxcatcher.
    I didn’t think his performance as the seriously disturbed John E. du
    Pont, was as praiseworthy as everyone else gave him credit for. But I’m
    in awe of Johnny Depp’s transformation, he’s truly scary as Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger.