BY ROGER THOMAS
A few months ago I commented that I was tired of boxing films. That genre had seemed to peak and I was not sure I ever wanted another one made. I included my opinion on the subject in my review of “Southpaw.”
Recently, I began to wonder if the same is true about gangster films. There are a lot of great mob films. Without a thought, most film fans could list 10 or more. As I watched “Black Mass,” the latest contribution to gangster genre, I kept thinking, “Did I really need to see one more film about violent people controlling and taking the lives of others?”
There are several elements of “Black Mass” that are impressive. First, this film’s story has a particular substance to it because it is based on a real mob leader. All those gangster films that I really love, “The Godfather Trio” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” all tell fictional stories. I believe I watch true stories differently, in spite of knowing in most cases screenwriters and directors often take great liberties with the truth.
“Black Mass” does tell a strong and intriguing story. Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger controlled much of South Boston in the 70s and 80s with the help of agents from the FBI. Equally surprising, Bulger’s brother was a state senator. If this were fiction, it would be hard to believe.
Another strength of the film that no one can deny is the performance by Johnny Depp. He has done outstanding work in a wide variety of films, but here he has transformed into something truly unique. Captain Jack Sparrow, a role for which Depp got an Oscar nomination, is much less of a transformation than Depp becoming Bulger. Throughout the film, I was captivated with how the makeup and Depp’s portrayal truly created something new and unique.
The movie, as one would expect of any mobster film, has a fair share of violence, but there are also some quieter and more emotional moments. An early scene between Bulger and his young son captures a different side of the man who ordered others to take violent actions and end lives. Later on, when the young son becomes ill, some of the strongest moments of the film are revealed.
Finally, as I mentioned above, this film of mobsters also focuses at least half the time on the efforts of the FBI. Some of the agents are diligently seeking a reason to arrest Bulger until he becomes an “informant.” Other agents are ultimately assisting him, which is a twist not found in many of the classic mob films.
Those are the reasons the film works. You have to decide whether you have seen enough movies of men who live destructive lives through organized crime.
Back in August I wrote a column about the ten films to which I was looking most forward during September and October. Thus far I have seen six of those ten films. Three of the ten have not yet opened and the fourth just did. “Black Mass” was on that list. Depp’s latest film is as well-crafted as any of the films on my fall list. For me, the whole experience of the film is less than most of the others I have seen.
Perhaps it is simple: we are having a really good fall film season this year.
Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.