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FILMARTICLE

In BLACK MASS, Johnny Depp Says Goodbye to MORTDECAI and Hello to the Bad Guy

You've probably forgotten about how good it feels to watch Johnny Depp perform at the top of his game. It's finally time to remember.

Look, there's no way around it: Johnny Depp's makeup in Black Mass makes him look more like a white-haired demon than infamous Boston crime kingpin James "Whitey" Bulger. The actor is unrecognizable in the role for a reason; he doesn't appear to be human. Oddly enough, though, Depp's physical abnormality works to his benefit. His performance as Beantown's most ruthless crime boss is so powerfully and believably lived-in that it quickly becomes easy to look past his Doc-Brown-possessed-by-Pazuzu appearance. He's scary for all the right reasons.

Black Mass isn't Depp's comeback so much as it's a fist-to-the-face reminder of the man's greatness. Whereas his lazy Tim Burton retreads and this year's embarrassing flop Mortdecai have felt like missteps by an uninspired or disenchanted performer, Depp's choice to inhabit Whitey Bulger's persona harkens back to his Donnie Brasco and Blow days, when he chose roles based on the material's quality. With Black Mass, he found the grandaddy of real-life gangsterism. The film chronicles Bulger's reign from 1975 through his empire's downfall in the mid-'80s, giving director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) a vastness garden of evil to portray. There's Bulger's secret work as a top-echelon FBI informant, which was orchestrated by childhood friend turned FBI agent John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton); the numerous cold-blooded murders he committed with both his bare hands and handguns; and Bulger's softer side that's reserved for his family, including younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), who's been elected senator, and his son's mother (Dakota Johnson).

Clearly directing while keeping Martin Scorsese's playbook handy, its chapters on Goodfellas and The Departed firmly bookmarked, Cooper proves more than capable of nailing the harsh brutality of Bulger's South Boston universe. The strangulation murder of a young prostitute, in particular, is next-level horrific, with Cooper panning away as the girl's audible choking and desperate struggle impact harder than anything the director could have shown. He's also assembled a top-shelf array of co-stars, all of whom look and feel like Boston ruffians, even the ones who typically don't, namely Fargo's Jesse Plemons, whose boxed jaw and icy eyes look all the more imposing when positioned next to Depp's somewhat freakish facial prosthetics.

Side players like Plemons help Depp to elevate Black Mass above mere Scorsese-lite territory, which is a feat considering Cooper goes as far as blatantly ripping off Goodfellas' most iconic scene. You'll know it when it happens, just as you'll sense the rampant familiarity all throughout this mostly unoriginal true crime saga. But with acting this uniformly great, it's a bloody trip down a well-worn path that's worth taking. Even if the tour guide looks like the evil twin of A Clockwork Orange's Mr. Alexander...

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