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I have seen most of the major mafia movies — “Goodfella”, “Casino”, “The Godfather” trilogy. I think “The Sopranos” is one of the greatest TV shows in the history of the medium.
And all of these show the violence and evil of organized crime. But with maybe the exception of “The Sopranos” that violence and evil is glamorized to a certain extent
That’s what makes “Black Mass” such an exceptional film. It’s a stark, unglamorized look at a very evil man, his evil asssociates and the violence that was part of their lives.
It’s the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of the Winter Hill Gang which controlled the South Boston neighborhood with an iron fist.
This movie might have been released too early for Oscar season. But Johnny Depp, who portrays Bulger, is deserving of at least a nomination. There’s no gray area to his Bulger. His performance holds back nothing. We see Bulger for who he is, pure evil.
Now that may sound simple to accomplish, but it’s not. The script from Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on the book “Black Mass”, along with the direction of Scott Cooper and the efforts of Depp prevent Bulger from becoming a caricature. Let’s face it, Al Pacino’s “Just when I thought I was out. . . they pulled me back in” from “The Godfather III” borders on a comedic catchphrase now.
The part of “Black Mass” that I found fascinating was the actions of the FBI agents in Boston in regards to Bulger. They wanted to bring down the Italian Mafia. And they seek the help of Bulger, an Irish-American mobster, to do it.
Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up in South Boston with Bulger and is loyal to him. Connolly convinces his boss Charlies McGuire (Kevin Bacon) to allow him to approach Bulger on becoming an FBI informant. This is in 1975 and for the next 20 years or so, Bulger feeds the FBI info.
Having a violent organized crime boss as an informant being supervised by a FBI agent who admires him couldn’t go wrong? Could it? It does big time.
While Bulger’s info puts a dent into Italian Mafia in Boston, he’s allowed to run amok killing his opposition and running his gang.
The whole thing blows up in the FBI’s face. And while this is a true story and has been heavily covered by the media, I won’t give all the details of the ending away in case you aren’t familiar with it. But it’s satisfying.
Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a solid performance as Bulger’s brother, William, who is a powerful state senator. The role is limited and Cumberbatch does well with what he has to work with.
One more comment on a performance in this movie. Edgerton’s efforts leave us with questions and that’s a good thing. It’s a skillful performance that leaves us asking, was he that naive? Why was he so loyal to Bulger? Or was he willing to do whatever it took to advance in the FBI and didn’t consider the costs? I think it’s a little bit of all three.

RATING — *** 1/2 stars