Johnny Depp, known for his collaborations with director Tim Burton, has carved out a niche playing eccentric characters like Edward Scissorhands, Captain Jack Sparrow and Sweeney Todd.
However, after coming to prominence playing anti-heartthrob roles following his breakthrough in 1987’s “21 Jump Street,” Depp has seen the last two out of his most recent three films become commercial and critical failures.
Much like Hollywood’s exploitation of western films, audiences have grown tired of Depp’s portrayal of bizarre characters. Seemingly shooting for a career reboot is Depp’s latest film, “Black Mass,” a collaboration with director Scott Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges in his Academy Award-winning performance in 2009’s “Crazy Heart.”
Prior to his performance, Bridges’ career was flat-lining. “Crazy Heart” gave Bridges an outlet to vent his frustrations as an actor by performing as a washed-up musician. “Black Mass,” in comparison, is more than a comeback performance for Depp. His accolades and nominations would affirm that Depp is capable of handling dramatic roles, but Depp needs to prove that he can be a leading man again in Hollywood. Similarly, Cooper’s last film, “Out of the Furnace,” failed to harness the true acting potential of its ensemble cast starring Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck. “Out of the Furnace” was a major critical disappointment and much like Depp, Cooper needs to prove that he can be a bankable director for major Hollywood studios.
In “Black Mass,” Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger, a real-life Irish-American mobster who becomes the most infamous criminal in South Boston. Joel Edgerton portrays John Connolly, an FBI agent with conflicting loyalties between his agency and Bulger, whom he grew up with. Benedict Cumberbatch plays William Bulger, Whitey’s brother and a state senator who has to balance his ambition with his greed. “Black Mass” follows Bulger’s merciless rise to power during the 1970s and 1980s and his unorthodox relationship with the FBI. Ultimately, “Black Mass” is less a biopic about Bulger but instead a mob movie that treads on familiar territory that American audiences have come to know and love.
The film is not the first time audiences have been introduced to the story of Whitey Bulger and his associates. In 2006, Martin Scorsese directed “The Departed,” a remake of the Chinese crime-thriller film “Infernal Affairs.” Scorsese turned “The Departed” into a hybrid between the psychological thriller and mob genres, the latter of which comes directly from stories about Whitey Bulger and how he operated in South Boston.
“The Departed” was a box office and critical smash, raking in $250 million globally and winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. Since 2006, Hollywood has attempted to capitalize on the now very much alive mob genre but has failed miserably. This has been due to the mediocre performance of the lead actor or due to a weak supporting cast. Depp and Cooper seek to succeed where other recent mob movies, such as 2014’s “A Most Violent Year,” have failed.
Depp is unrecognizable as Whitey Bulger and gives an Oscar-worthy performance that reminds audiences why they fell in love with Depp in the first place. He seamlessly flows between Bulger’s range of complicated emotions, equally as magnetic as he is terrifying, showing compassion in one scene and carrying out a brutal execution in the next. Depp’s performance as Bulger is reminiscent of Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in “Goodfellas.” Like Scorsese, Cooper is able to recreate the same type of tension between Bulger, his allies and his enemies.
Cooper commands “Black Mass” behind the scenes as deftly as Depp commands the screen. Seeming to learn from his failures in “Out of the Furnace” and the failures of other recent mob movies, Cooper ensured that the supporting characters in “Black Mass” had as much complexity as the film’s protagonist. Joel Edgerton, hot off his indie hit “The Gift,” gives a performance that almost steals the show from Depp. Edgerton is able to make the audience loathe him in one scene and laugh at his jokes in the next. Like Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch is establishing himself as a critical darling. Last year, Cumberbatch was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.” Cumberbatch’s William served as a great parallel to Depp’s Whitey. William was loved by his family and respected by his community. Even William’s mannerisms and accent contrast those of Whitey. Cooper’s direction of Depp, Edgerton and Cumberbatch create a trinity in “Black Mass” that will rival other mafia trinities, including “Goodfellas” and “The Departed,” and set a high standard for all to come next.
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