Blu-ray Review: Black Mass

By , Contributor
Director Scott Cooper seems to have built his mob movie Black Mass on everything he learned from crime genre masters like Martin Scorsese. Though well acted, bolstered by a particularly striking turn by Johnny Depp as Irish-American gangster James "Whitey" Bulger," the film never finds its own tonal voice. There's a lot of history here, both depicted and alluded to, and Cooper plops us down in the middle of it. It's the mid-'70s and Bulger, leader of the Winter Hill Gang, has recently done a lengthy stint in Alcatraz. He's a fearsome South Boston mobster looking to increase his level of power and control, with his sights set on eliminating the primary organized crime competition: the Angiulo Brothers of Boston's north end. Warner Bros. has recently issued this modest box office hit on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.

There have been so many mob movies over the decades, a sense of deja vu creeps in here at times. At one point, as Bulger attempts to intimidate an associate to ascertain how likely he is to fold during questioning, Cooper tries to stage his very own "I'm funny how?" scene straight out of Goodfellas. A quarter-century later, that classic Joe Pesci set piece is every bit as tense, scary, and funny as ever. But when we see it shamelessly copied, it only reminds of us of the original. Much of Black Mass feels informed by past screen gangster tales, bringing to mind the same problem that befell another Depp-starring crime film, Ted Demme's Blow (2001). While Cooper doesn't ape Scorsese's every flourish (and narrative structure) the way the late Demme did, he didn't do enough to distinguish Black Mass
Black Mass 2 (380x254).jpg It doesn't help that as the characters pile up, most significantly among them being FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), Black Mass's lack of a central point of view becomes painfully evident. Connolly manages to convince the vehemently anti-"rat" Bulger to become an informant. By aiding the FBI, revealing only what he judiciously chooses to, Bulger will have an inside track on the Angiulos. But as Connolly gets wrapped up in Bulger's world, his ethics slowly become corrupted. It's a bit of a variation on another true story, also starring Depp, Donnie Brasco. Depp, perfect in that underrated 1997 classic as FBI agent Joseph Pistone, showed us how a "good guy" can be influenced negatively while undercover—yet ultimately remain ethically uncompromised.

Black Mass presents an undoubtedly sensational, cinematic story. The litany of supporting characters, including Bulger's girlfriend Lindsey (Dakota Johnson) and his prominent politician brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), helps create a menagerie of barely-controlled chaos in which Whitey exists. But it's too much, at least with the democratic way director Cooper has divided the screen time. Certain side characters don't get enough attention. Is this truly Whitey's story? Or is Agent Connolly actually the more interesting figure? Would more in-depth back story on Bulger's early years have help? Or should the entire film (or at least the bulk of it) focused on his many later years spent on the lam? Instead of a satisfying story, these are the questions that linger in the mind as Black Mass ends.
Black Mass BD (300x380).jpg While its most viscerally-staged sequences and Depp's performance make Black Mass ultimately worth a spin, Warner Bros.' Blu-ray includes some truly outstanding supplementary material. First and foremost is the knockout documentary The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger (which runs a full hour), focused on those aforementioned "on the lam" years in which Bulger eluded the FBI for years. There's also a good featurette on the making of Black Mass itself, "Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime" (22 minutes). "Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger" runs just over ten minutes and, as the title makes plain, details the methods employed by Depp to portray the infamous crime figure.

Masanobu Takayanagi's 35mm cinematography looks great in Warner's 1080p, high definition transfer. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is a very subtle affair, so don't expect any real sonic fireworks that one might associate with a crime-oriented film. Warner's Blu-ray Combo Pack includes a standard DVD plus Digital HD download.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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