No matter how hard you try to resist, the first image you construct of a character is the archetype against which you compare all others. Val Kilmer was only a good Batman if you hadn’t first seen Michael Keaton or Adam West. I liked Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes but couldn’t get Basil Rathbone out of my head.
So, too, is the case with Johnny Depp’s stone-cold portrayal of stone-cold killer and mob boss Whitey Bulger in the crime biopic “Black Mass.”
Bulger freely ran the South Boston Irish mob in the ’70s and ’80s. The Feds gave him a pass because he also served as a confidential informant for the FBI’s larger case against the North Boston Italian mob.
He was ruthless with his enemies and with those he suspected of disloyalty. But he also cared for the neighborhood from which he emerged, charging his underlings with the care of its older residents. If that sounds familiar, it is because Jack Nicholson’s character in Martin Scorsese’s amazing 2006 Oscar-winning gritty drama “The Departed” was based on Bulger.
That said, while Scorsese’s film is, overall, superior, Depp’s Bulger is more calculating, less flamboyant and true to the narrative which goes like this:
With increased scrutiny on organized crime, the FBI brings on a new class of recruits from the mean streets to combat and, in some cases, infiltrate the gangs. One of the newbies is John Connolly (“The Gift’s” Joel Edgerton) who knew Bulger when both were kids wreaking havoc in South Boston. Connolly negotiates a deal whereby Bulger feeds him innocuous information to placate his superiors in return for, essentially, just maintaining the status quo. But even this Bulger only does halfheartedly, which after a while tries the patience of Connolly’s boss (Kevin Bacon). In time, it all breaks down, but not before Bulger manages to slip away and remain at large for 16 years.
Ironically, one of Depp’s best roles was the polar opposite of this one — he played undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone in 1997’s “Donnie Brasco” (see sidebar). Regrettably, he has had few remarkable performances since (other than Jack Sparrow, of course).
Here he has finally found a role in which he returns to form but is unfortunately saddled with a bland supporting cast and weak script undeserving of him.
I was unimpressed but if you haven’t seen “The Departed” you might be.