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Black Mass - Review * 28 November 2015

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Based around the real life exploits of the notorious Boston gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger, and the pact with the local branch of the FBI that effectively rendered him able to commit violent crime with immunity, Black Mass stars Johnny Depp in the lead role, alongside Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and a host of other recognisable faces.

Despite his notoriety in the United States, Whitey Bulger is a relatively unknown quantity to the rest of the world. It's perhaps a shame then, that this solid, well made film is let down by its over familiarity - there are plenty of other, stronger crime narratives, both fictional and real, that tell a more compelling story than this. The greatest single story issue with Black Mass however is a general lack of focus on any one character or aspect of events, or featuring any one character as a consistent in-point for the audience to follow -as an example, David Fincher's tonally similar 'Zodiac' features a huge cast of big names, but we're hooked by Jake Gyllenhaal's tireless, obsessive investigative reporter navigating his way through the clinical, aloof narrative. Instead, Black Mass plays as a sequential laundry list of occurrences, lacking emotional investment in any single character as many approach their downfalls.

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We're used to Johnny Depp being the go-to guy for crazed quirkiness these days, but he has good pedigree in crime thrillers, such as 'Donnie Brasco', 'Blow' and 'Public Enemies'. Unfortunately, he is arguably stronger in those older films than here, his excellent, menacing Whitey slightly lost under a distracting amount of prosthetic make-up. If the film allowed it, the most interesting character would be Joel Edgerton as FBI Agent  John Connolly, the childhood friend of the Bulger brothers who is incrementally corrupted by his renewed association with them. Edgerton is handed the strongest material in the film on Connolly's downward spiral, but at no point are we given enough to either sympathise or truly loathe him.

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Benedict Cumberbatch, operating under prosthetic enhancement but thankfully not to the same extent as  Depp, deploys a remarkable Southie accent as Senator Billy Bulger . Again, through no fault of the actors, the film fumbles what could be an intriguing conceptual match-up that would single handedly fuel the story alone- a state Senator whose brother is a crime boss. Depp and Cumberbatch are on the screen a few times together, but are never able to share a scene of any true weight that is worthy of their talents. Instead the 'separate-ness' of Billy is his defining characteristic, able to shield himself from the exploits of his criminal brother while maintaining a facade of genuine respectability. As it is, there is sadly nothing here for Benedict to truly get his teeth into.

Black Mass is a well made, handsome looking crime thriller that takes us deep into the backstreets of Boston as it lived under the rule of a growing criminal empire. It is a film overstuffed with interesting stories, to the degree than none can fully hold our attention, performed by an excellent cast that is unfortunately never really allowed to cut loose with their abilities.