In this image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Joel Edgerton portrays John Connolly, left, and Johnny Depp portrays Whitey Bulger in the Boston-set film, "Black Mass." (Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

In this image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Joel Edgerton portrays John Connolly, left, and Johnny Depp portrays Whitey Bulger in the Boston-set film, "Black Mass." (Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

Reeling it in: Actors’ performances carry ‘Black Mass’

“Black Mass”

Warner Bros. Pictures

2 hours, 2 minutes

I remember hearing the name Whitey Bulger a few years ago in the news. It’s one of those names that sounds familiar, but also like something you heard from a movie, so I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know who the guy was or not. Suffice it to say I didn’t pay it much attention — just another lowlife getting busted in some faraway city. Not much of a story there, right?

Wow, was I wrong. This week’s Boston mafia drama, “Black Mass,” chronicles, in sometimes harrowing detail, the rise and fall of one of the cities most notorious, real-life criminals.

Though the film is ostensibly about Whitey Bulger, and Johnny Depp’s frightening portrayal makes it hard to look away, the story is also centered on an FBI agent named John Connolly, a childhood friend of Bulger’s, and the man whose job it should have been to take him down.

As the film opens, Connolly is new to the Bureau and Bulger is a small-time operator, head of the Winter Hill Gang, a handful of thugs working out of South Boston. Tasked with eliminating the larger, potentially more dangerous Italian mafia in North Boston, Connolly approaches his old friend and asks for something unprecedented: an alliance. Instead of calling him an informant — the lowest of the low among underworld types, Bulger would be considered a partner in the removal of the Cosa Nostra, thereby eliminating his major competition.

In return for his help, Connolly and Co. would turn a blind eye to the “small-time” activities of the Winter Hill Gang. Little does anyone know that Bulger has no intention of staying small for long, and with all the police attention on the Italians, there’s nothing to keep him from taking the city by storm.

Johnny Depp is flat out scary as James “Whitey” Bulger. With sallow, pale skin, thin, white hair, and ice-pick blue eyes, Depp completely disappears into the role. It’s nearly impossible to reconcile this reptilian presence with the good-natured goof that is Captain Jack Sparrow, the two characters sharing only one similar feature, that being a tooth — gold in Sparrow’s case, and dead in Bulger’s.

Reaction is oddly mixed on Depp’s performance, with some experiencing Johnny Depp fatigue and complaining that it’s just another wig and make-up job, but I maintain that Depp’s ability to completely transform makes him one of the best actors working today, whether his movies are always the best or not.

As Connolly, Aussie Joel Edgerton also does a remarkable job. Bulger is just a bad, bad guy, but Connolly is a character whose moral compass is so out of whack that he actually considers himself one of the good guys, even when he’s going to remarkable lengths to protect his murderous friend. For him, loyalty trumps all other ethical concerns.

The film is jam-packed with cameos and smaller roles for some great actors, such as Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, and even Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Bulger’s brother, who is, remarkably, a sitting Massachusetts legislator during the period the story unfolds.

Everyone is fine in these roles, but I was most impressed with Julianne Nicholson, an actress known more for TV roles than film, who plays Connolly’s long-suffering wife Marianne. Her role is not large, but she has one particularly electrifying scene with Bulger where he intimately intimidates her — effectively terrorizing her by doing little more than caressing her face. You keep thinking, “He’s not going to hurt her. Not her” — and then you remember he strangled a prostitute not five minutes earlier.

That above scene was particularly tense, but it also highlights the biggest problem with “Black Mass.” Aside from the performances, the film has a bit of a “been there, done that” feel. It’s definitely by the numbers. Every murder is telegraphed from a mile away. In a better crafted film there would be more surprises, more of the unexpected, but here, every time you think, “He’s totally gonna shoot that guy,” guess what? He totally does.

That the film is familiar doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching it — if you like gangster pictures, you’ll like “Black Mass,” but it does keep the movie from being anything really special. It’s an adequate film with above average performances, and two stellar performances from the two lead actors. The story of Bulger and his rise to power, especially his partnership with the FBI, is remarkable — but the movie version? Just pretty good, and that’s not bad.

Grade: B+

“Black Mass” is rated R for pervasive language, brutal violence, and some sexual dialogue.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

More in Life

Virginia Walters (Courtesy photo)
Life in the Pedestrian Lane: ‘Tis the Season

The Kenai Community Library has always been one of the stars in the crown of the community.

Homer News Ben Mitchell, left, serves spaghetti to helper Pat Wells in the kitchen at a past Share the Spirit spaghetti feed. (Michael Armstrong/Homer News file)
Looking to share some holiday spirit? Here’s how

Share the Spirit serves the Homer community by donating food, essential needs and Christmas presents.

Appease your child’s picky palate with these tasty Tater Tots. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
On the strawberry patch: Tots to be thankful for

Two years ago, I spent the entirety of Thanksgiving Day in my green rocking chair, cradling my newborn son.

Minister’s Message: Keep in step

Sometimes it takes going half way around the world to learn how to “keep in step” as I journey.

Shelli and Mike Gordon pose in October 2011 at their Halibut Cove, Alaska, home in an Alaska Gothic version of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting. (Photo courtesy of Mike Gordon)
‘Dagnabit’ features tales of ’80s wild Alaska

Gordon’s second book also tells of Ruben Gaines, creator of Chilkoot Charlie.

Before boiling, this handmade pasta is rolled, cut and tossed in flour to keep from sticking. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
On the strawberry patch: Pasta by hand

Learning one of the most important task of the Italian kitchen: making the pasta.

Will Morrow (courtesy)
The Great Thanksgiving dessert debate

Our holiday gathering is going to be smaller than it sometimes is, and it was argued that we didn’t need two desserts.

Dianne Spence-Chorman’s “Fig Study” is one of the works showing in the Homer Council on the Arts “Fun wtih 5x7” show through Dec. 22, 2021, at the gallery in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
‘Fun with 5×7’ offers affordable art

HCOA annual art show presents art in a variety of media, all in 5x7 format.

Make pumpkin chocolate chip with cinnamon buttercream cupcakes for a decadent fall treat. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
On the strawberry patch: In honor of ‘Cupcake Mondays’

Pumpkin chocolate chip with cinnamon buttercream cupcakes brighten up the dreariest of work.

Nick Varney
Nick Varney
Unhinged Alaska: Back off, Zeus

If this wet-n-warm, freeze, then start again, continues much longer, Kachemak Drive will need a complete redo.

The cover of Tom Kizzia’s book, “Cold Mountain Path,” published by Porphyry Press in October 2021. (Photo provided)
‘Cold Mountain Path’ explores ghost town history of McCarthy

Kizzia’s book looks at McCarthy history from 1938 to the town’s revival as a tourist destination.

Melinda Hershberger works on her installation for the Kenai Art Center’s collaborative mural project on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Wall-to-wall creativity

Artists collaborate on a single mural at the Kenai Art Center this month.