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In 1970s South Boston, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) persuades Irish mobster James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp) to collaborate with the FBI in order to eliminate their common enemy: the Italian mob. Black Mass tells the true story of this unholy alliance, which spiraled out of control, allowing Bulger to evade law enforcement while escalating his power to become one of the most notorious gangsters in U.S. history. (From the WB synopsis)

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Scott Cooper is a director I want to like more. He always seems to have the ingredients for a great movie but just can't quite cook up something that blows me away. Part of it is that his movies feel designed to try and win awards. This worked alright for me in his 2009 debut, Crazy Heart, which gave us the gift of Colin Farrell singing country music and had a wonderful performance from Jeff Bridges. In 2013 he directed Out of the Furnace. It didn't win a lot of awards, but it sure felt like the people making it wanted it to. It had a great cast and the studio campaigned and sent out screeners for award consideration. In his new film, Scott Cooper's Black Mass feels like his most concentrated effort to win awards yet. It's got the true crime angle. It's based on the same gangster informer that Oscar winner The Departed was centered on and it has a well known star buried in makeup. But does he pull it off?

I find myself in odd opposition to where most people seem to stand on Black Mass. A lot of critics seem to agree that the movie is pretty average but Johnny Depp is good in it. Ironically, I thought Johnny Depp's performance was one of the weakest in the film. To me, he still comes across as playing one of his cartoonish Burton characters. The core performance is just like his other work. The makeup looks more like an old gangster than a Mad Hatter, he's surrounded by less CGI, but he's still playing one of those characters. Perhaps its baggage that Depp brought with him from previous roles (or that I brought along as a viewer), but I never got lost in the movie the way I normally do with strong lead performances. I was constantly attentive to the fact that I was looking at Johnny Depp in old man makeup playing a character, and that made it really hard for me to take him seriously.

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I'm probably somewhat alone in my harsh views on the lead performance, but I bet more folks would agree that the supporting cast in this film is awesome. MVP goes to Peter Sarsgaard who plays a strung out coke addict that gets caught in Bulger's web. Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch don't have to stretch much for their roles, but they are reliable and solid here. Rory Cochrane of Deadwood fame and Jesse Plemons from Breaking Bad also have memorable roles as associates of Bulger's. Dakota Johnson isn't given much to do but she stands out in some of the films more melodramatic scenes.

As for the storytelling, I have to admit I was entertained throughout Black Mass. Even if Depp's performance didn't work for me, there was enough supporting cast to keep my interest and the escalating connection between Bulger and the FBI is inherently compelling. Sometimes it feels like the film wants to be a stylish Scorsese picture and other times it dives head on into award bait melodrama. It stumbles when it tries to explore Bulger's personal life in a meaningful way, but the crime story here is interesting. People already very familiar with Bulger's story may find the proceedings less compelling, but I can't count myself among them. Two viewings in I still find myself cautiously recommending it to friends who show interest.

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Video


This 1080p transfer from WB looks great. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shot the film and goes for a look not too far from 2011's Warrior, but with less grain and handheld camerawork. The cold look and sets often reminded of Hotye Van Hoytema's work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is compliment. Shot on 35mm, it has a healthy and consistent grain to it that is aesthetically pleasing and fits the time period of the story well. Detail is very strong. Detailed patterns on a wall are very easy to make out. The makeup work on Depp can be intensely scrutinized, and holds up well if you ask me. Color looks good and consistent on the transfer though no color in particular pops out. The look is appropriately a little drab. Outdoor scenes look overcast and warmer than natural. The image never pops in a way that will put your fancy television set to the test, but it fits the film well and is perfectly represented in this Blu-ray transfer.

Audio


The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on this release is exactly what it should be. For a gangster story with a lot of promo materials of Johnny Depp holding guns, this is a quiet movie. It's mostly people talking indoors. Occasionally they shout, and occasionally there are guns that get used and when these things happen the sound mix steps up and delivers. Gunshots are punchy and loud, making the cruelty of some scenes more palpable. During the talking the dialogue is given the appropriate levels and shouldn't be hard to make out, given you can interpret those Hollywood Boston accents. Tom Holkenborg's score isn't particularly memorable but fits the material well enough while watching.

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Extras


Extras start off with Black Mass: Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime (HD, 23:00). This is a pretty good little documentary that covers some of your usual "making of" territory but also goes over the accuracy of the story. Best of all, it feels like it was made for this Blu-ray release and isn't just an extended advertisement for the film that was thrown on the disc. Next up is Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger (HD, 12:24). This covers both the mental preparation Depp went through  with interview footage, and the makeup process. Crew members also talk at length about seeing Depp in makeup for the first time. Last but not least is The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger (HD, 01:01:38), a full documentary about the search for Bulger with lots of interview footage from multiple people involved. If you want more of the true history of Whitey Bulger this makes for a great supplement to the film.

Overall


Black Mass is worth a watch. It succeeds more when it is a true crime story and not a melodrama about Bulger's personal life. Johnny Depp's lead performance didn't really work for me, but the awesome supporting cast and fascinating true story were enough to keep my interest with ease. WB delivers the goods on the Blu-ray presentation. The extras, while small in number, are worthy of interest.

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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