Look, I'm not saying that any harm should come to whoever first compared Johnny Depp to Marlon Brando, but I do hope that they at least feel a little bit guilty. While their raw talent may well be comparable, Depp moved far too quickly to his idol's final phase as a performer, where self-amusement and silly voices trump everything else.
Touted as a return to Depp's early form, the gangster saga Black Mass encouragingly shows that it may be a bad idea to write off Depp quite yet. (Yes, even after Tusk.) The actor's love of makeup has, if anything, intensified; Here, he festoons himself with bad teeth, an elfin nose, and malamute eyes with fascinatingly grotesque results. (Some shots suggest that his mustache from Mortdecai may even still be attached, a few strata down.) What's new, however, is that he doesn't seem content with just pleasing himself this time, engaging with the material to create a full-blooded, occasionally terrifying center of attention. Unfortunately, the film can't quite measure up to this level of intensity, adopting a somber pace at odds with its star's level of enthusiasm. Despite Depp's full participation—and an even better performance by Joel Edgerton as a hapless FBI blowfish—Black Mass never really maintains its own charge.
Adapted from the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, Black Mass follows the life, times, and '80s reign of terror of James "Whitey" Bulger, a South Boston criminal whose status as a beloved neighborhood institution belies his hair-trigger ruthlessness. When a childhood buddy turned federal agent (Edgerton) enlists his help as an informant to take down the local Italian mob, Whitey seizes the opportunity as license to go increasingly nuclear on anyone in his path. As a rule, whenever there's a scene of someone walking toward their car, prepare to wince.
But director Scott Cooper, whose Out of the Furnace showed a deft touch with both good performers and bad vibes, never really seems to get a tonal handle on his material, slowing the momentum down when it should be vrooming ahead. Too often, the pacing and extended close-ups allow the attention to drift away from the narrative, and instead focus on distractions, like how Depp's prosthetics appear to have slithered off of him and eaten much of the supporting cast. (A riotous montage of informants just needs Pruneface and Flattop to qualify for inclusion in the Dick Tracy cinematic universe.) Aside from a memorably tense scene around the dinner table, it lacks the queasy, compulsive voyeurism that makes mob movies so addictive.
Thankfully, Depp keeps pulling the viewer back in—particularly when interacting with Edgerton, who is by turns hilarious and pitiable as a puffed-up glad-hander who proves to be nowhere near as bright as he thinks he is. Surrounded by a cadre of distinguished character actors (including Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, and a jittery-even-for-him Peter Sarsgaard), all relishing the chance to pahk their cahs in the Bahston yahd, this Gruesome Twosome is magnetic, even when their story only goes through the motions.