New ‘70s gangster drama: biographical blunder

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) recants the stunning biography of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp, “Pirates of the Caribbean”), an exceedingly power-hungry gangster boss operating in the late ‘70s in the crime drama “Black Mass.”

The true-story biopic delineates the endemic behaviors of Bostonians — halfway between brotherly love and being blatantly independent. Bulger exploits the former characteristic in his relationship with fellow South Boston native, an FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, “Warrior”), to gain immunity in exchange for information on a rival gang.

Cooper displays the ‘70s Boston community by incessantly returning to characters’ firmly-planted Southie roots. Viewers witness Jimmy (James Bulger) playing gin rummy with his mother and eating Christmas dinner with his brother, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch, “Sherlock”), ironically a powerful state politician.

Black Mass netted a fairly weak opening weekend box office pull of $22.6 million, a surprising figure considering the all-star cast headlined by chameleonic Johnny Depp. Though the role might seem strange to viewers introduced to the iconic actor by films like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Sweeny Todd,” Depp is actually no stranger to the gangster and crime lord persona, racking up stunningly twisted portrayals in “Donnie Brasco,” “Blow” and “Public Enemies.” The structure of Cooper’s biopic unfortunately hardly gave one of the great actors of his generation any room to shine.

The film’s basis in truth granted the filmmakers the false notion that every significant event needed to be covered, so the film impatiently swings from scene to scene, briskly progressing without any emphasis on character development.

Elite gang films such as “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” gain high esteem due to character dynamics. Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather”) conveys deep emotion in his characters, beautifully developing and reshaping their personas beneath a veil of stereotypical Italian mobster grit. “Black Mass” disappoints in this category.

For the first 30 minutes, no protagonist development exists aside from repetitive mob-style murders in empty parking lots and an excess of skeletal makeup. Cooper absolutely botches countless opportunities for emotional scenes.

Amidst a family crisis, the film skims over the situation and awkwardly cuts together a poor dialogue between Jimmy and his wife, who contributes nothing to the film, squandering character progression once again in favor of moving on with the plot.

FBI agent Connolly exists as the best example of character dynamism, as he is slowly corrupted by Bulger’s influence. However, Cooper once again fumbles this advancement, even resorting to using John’s wife to outline his changes in appearance and attitude, exhibiting the young filmmaker’s inadequate ability to manipulate these nuances on screen.

Perhaps the only positive development scene occurs over halfway through the film, illustrating the protagonist’s nature as a twisted monster and crazed sociopath by delivering a chilling dialogue to Connolly’s wife. In the end, the audience has but a vague sense of the characters’ inner workings.

From a technical standpoint, cinematographer Masanobu Taka-
yanagi compiles strong shots and seamless cuts worthy of the big screen, although the cliche low-angle shot staring into the eyes of a gun-brandishing villain is overused. A great cinematographer should incessantly baffle and astounds viewers with creative shots, raising questions like “how in the world did they do that?” This film fails to do so.

In “Black Mass,” director Cooper creates a true biopic, bound to the constraints of James Bulger’s historical story in neglect of what distinguishes a pedantic recantation from an elaborate, magnetic retelling.

The story itself was stunning and unbelievable, but it proves deficient in its task of propelling the film, while detrimental factors like lack of directorial control and character arcs pull backwards. The film had legitimate potential and even talk of Academy Award consideration, but Cooper’s creation disappoints instead.

Overall: 2/5