In Hollywood, as in life, everyone loves a comeback story. When Scott Cooper's "Black Mass" released its first trailer, the comeback narrative for Johnny Depp already started writing itself. After years of hiding his talent behind odd "paycheck" caricatures, it appeared that the megastar had finally returned to a "serious" role. And now that the film has been released to the masses, I'm happy to report that Depp has thoroughly delivered on that promise.
"Black Mass" tells the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp), an Irish-American gangster who came to prominence in the 1970s. Starting out small-time with his Winter Hill Gang, he gradually took control over the criminal underworld of South Boston. Throughout his rise to power, he was abetted by a corrupt arrangement with the FBI, requiring him to provide information on the activities of the rival Angiulo Brothers. With the ambitious FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) leading the way, along with the willful ignorance of Whitey's influential brother - a local senator -, the Winter Hill Gang was able to unleash their reign of terror. But Whitey and John are playing with fire as mob informant and accomplice respectively, a fact that all but guarantees their demise.
The proceeding rise and fall narrative of Whitey and John is depicted with pulpy gusto by Cooper. With all the gratuitous violence and tense showdowns we've come to expect, "Black Mass" proves that the long-standing tropes of the gangster film still have the power to entertain. Recounted in the form of confessional flashbacks from the gang members, Cooper breezes through decades worth of action. As such, the film does suffer from its superficial - albeit thrilling - treatment of the material, giving the sense of an unduly condensed plot.
But what the film lacks in narrative depth, it makes up for in the superb performances of its star-studded cast. Despite being a formulaic gangster film, "Black Mass" surprises with how genuine each character feels. As the film's main star, Johnny Depp is especially impressive. He completely disappears into the role, acting through the extreme makeup to give a smart, grounded performance. Even when Whitey is at his most monstrous, Depp makes him feel like a real human being instead of a cartoonish villain. It's such a great reminder of his talent considering his recent career choices.
As John Connolly, Joel Edgerton matches Depp all the way too, proving his leading man chops with a performance that brims with confidence and attitude. Indeed, the performances are the reason to watch this film, with strong work coming from Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons and David Harbour as well. "Black Mass" may not bring anything knew to the table, but like the mercurial gangsters it portrays, these actors get the job done.
And it's these sparkling performances which may push "Black Mass" into the Oscar conversation this year. Indeed, this feels like exactly the kind of ensemble-driven, slick production that could hit the sweet spot with Academy voters. I would therefore watch out for potential nods for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Makeup & Hairstyling.