Here is a story with great bio-pic potential: Whitey Bulger playing footsy with the FBI while he extorts and murders his way to the top of Beantown, which is what actually happened. “Black Mass” has Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch and an Academy-award winning director.
Here’s what it doesn’t have: chemistry.
The better mob movies have chemistry as well as killers. Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicolson totally had chemistry in “The Departed.” Depp and Pacino had it in “Donnie Brasco.” “Goodfellas” was a veritable chemistry set with De Niro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco all defying the law and one another. The gold standard, of course, is “The Godfather,” where chemistry courses through every scene like tomato sauce oozing from pasta bolognese.
In fairness, Whitey Bulger was a mad-dog, one-man slaughterhouse — so human chemistry was never going to be among his strengths. But the opportunity was there for the movie. For what is chemistry but the dynamics of a relationship and “Black Mass” is the study of a relationship verging on bromance. Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up in the same Southie neighborhood, went to the same elementary school. One became a hood, the other a lawman … pretty much the leading career choices for the South Boston Irish in the 1960s. The lawman saw in his boyhood pal Bulger a street-level source who could help the FBI bring down the Italian mob. And so began a partnership that swiftly degenerates into an unholy alliance. Connolly is ambitious but eventually decent. Bulger is a sociopath and eventually a sociopath. He murders men and women with his hands. And he’s also the world’s least productive FBI informant. Whitey-the-source-on-the-street receives a Get Out of Jail Free card while Connolly, who runs on trust, finds that he’s running from his brother agents.
“Black Mass” is a paint-by-number portrait of grimy hoods living off murder, drugs and IRA gun-running. The story is Connolly’s moral dilemma and Joel Edgerton is the right man for the part. Can’t say the same about Johnny Depp. The make-up department aged him, thinned his hair and combed it back so severely that he looks like a Martian.
And why is Benedict Cumberbatch playing the part of Massachusetts Senate President Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother? Last time we looked, he’s an Englishman. Billy Bulger (disclosure: we covered him back in he ’70s as a reporter for The Berkshire Eagle) was a scrappy, streetwise pol who never once gave recognition to the letter “R” in his speech. Cumberbatch plays him as if he’s about to burst into a soliloquy from “Macbeth.”
Bottom line: no chemistry and, not that you asked, no Mass.