This run-of-the-mill gangster saga covering the 1975-1985 heyday of South Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp) reminds me very much of 1990's State of Grace, also about Southie mobsters, and 1997's Donnie Brasco, an FBI-meets-Mafia drama also starring Depp. All three films take strong casts and potentially exciting crime elements, then bog them down with gloomy scripts and unremarkable direction. Love or hate The Departed, at least it was lively.
Despite Depp's penchant for playing loonies and his go-for-broke attempt at emulating Bulger's baldness, bad teeth, and love for aviator sunglasses, his performance is strictly by-the-book. Mobster tropes abound: You've got the scene where he makes a buddy squirm with his turn-on-a-dime temper, only to suddenly laugh evilly and tell the others, "Did you see his face?" You've got the scene where he ostensibly forgives a cohort after being slighted, then has him killed seconds later. You've got the scene where he threatens a lady to the point of tears just by caressing her face and speaking in a menacing whisper. We've seen it all before – usually by Joe Pesci, a more convincing gangster psycho than Depp could ever be. Black Mass is a, well, mass of such familiar scenes, few of which lead anywhere.
The famous stars that keep popping up, all sporting phony Boston accents (seriously, not everyone in Beantown pahks theih cahs in Hahvahd Yahd), are as distracting as Depp's bald pate and icy blue contacts. Benedict Cumberbatch is once again miscast as Bulger's brother and head of the Massachusetts State Senate, in one of the two truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twists in Bulger's life – the other being his symbiotic relationship with FBI agent/childhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), which takes up the bulk of the story, or what there is of it.
Black Mass isn't terrible. As fictionalized as it may be, it's still a good primer on Whitey Bulger. But it's not much more than that. If it took itself less seriously, if its script didn't rely so much on expository, explain-it-to-me-like-I'm-five dialogue, and if it had a director with a more distinctive style, it might have been something. Instead, it's just another Boston crime movie. Wicked average.