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Blu-ray Review: Black Mass

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Black Mass

Black Mass stars Johnny Depp as notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on the 25th of March. The film also stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Rory Cochrane and Kevin Bacon, and is directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart).

Black Mass tells the story of “Whitey” Bulger (Depp), a gangster in 70s, through to 80s, Boston. Bulger lives at home with his elderly mother, and his brother – a senator – played by Cumberbatch. This unusual set up is commented on, but the film seems to go to great lengths not to explore it. What Black Mass does concentrate on is John Connolly (Edgerton), an FBI agent who hero worships Bulger and goes to him with an offer to exchange information, before becoming gradually corrupted.

Time is spent with Bulger and his gang intimidating and infatuating the population of south Boston, but the film wants to cover too much and tell too many characters stories, so instead of a tale of whackings and wise guys, and their cool cars, big sunglasses, ugly shirts, enduring grudges, and sudden violence, we get a mistimed and meandering amble that wastes the best Depp performance in years, and the story of a magnetic crook in a crumbling and crooked city.

Seeing Depp stripped of wacky props and a dressing up box and just acting reminds you of how good he actually is. The only affectations he uses here are necessary contacts and a bald cap to replicate Bulger’s icy stare and thinning pate. If the film itself had been better, Depp would have got an Oscar nomination here, as his Bulger is genuinely scary and intimidating, unpredictable, with eyes the colour of a storm at sea and cheekbones he could shiv you with. Cumberbatch on the other hand is woefully miscast and out of his depth. His accent is a weird approximation of Bostonian, and it is very clear that he is saying his lines, but doesn’t really have a clue what he’s talking about.

Some bit players come and go: Kevin Bacon gets to shout some, and Rory Cochrane is great value when given something to actually do, as are Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson as criminally underserved wives, and Juno Temple gets a scene as a loveable dummy, but the best thing about Black Mass is Johnny Depp. It is just a shame that Black Mass is the story of his character in name only.

The picture is faultless throughout, with no encoding artefacts present at all. The audio is a confident, well-spread DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track. There is plenty of action in the surround channels throughout which is slightly unexpected, but very welcome, with bountiful orchestral swells frequently breaking out of the rears. The disc layout is disappointing, with a single static menu, no transitions, and even the background audio only loops once before falling silent.

There are three extras on the Blu-Ray: “Black Mass: Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime”, “Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger”, and “The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger”. “Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime” is a fairly generic making of that talks to the main players, and sees director Scott Cooper spend a suspicious amount of time justifying the truths he decided to tell and why. Cumberbatch pops up a couple of times, as does Depp, but the most interesting part of this bonus are the pieces of behind the scenes B-roll footage.

“Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger” goes into depth with Depp and his personal make-up artist creating the look of Whitey Bulger. At twelve minutes it’s a bit excessive, and it is frustrating that key cast members speak for the only time in the extras to say how good Depp’s make-up was. The star of the bonus line-up is “The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger”. At one hour and one minute, it’s a fascinating and detailed look at the real Bulger and his eventual capture that sheds more light on the man than the actual film does.

Depp is excellent but let down by a film that cannot ape the kinds of previous gangster films it wants to be like, and, while sporadically interesting and well acted, it is also incorrectly focussed and spread too thin. The stakes in Black Mass never feel particularly high – people die that we have only known for two minutes – and it all ends with a low-level shoulder shrug.

2-out-of-5

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