Review – Mass is a bit of a mess… (“Black Mass”)

Despite the title, this movie has nothing to do with anything black or even going to Mass. It does, however, have everything to do with that chameleon of an actor, Johnny Depp, who again completely immerses himself into a role that you hardly recognize him. Move over, Jack Sparrow, “Whitey” Bulger’s in town!

Based on a true story, crime lord Jimmy “WhiteyBulger is a real piece of work and dangerously psychotic if crossed. Told through narration and testimony by Jimmy’s old gangster co-horts, we learn of the people in Bulger’s life. There’s his older brother and State Senator Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch with a Bostonian accent) and Jimmy’s life-long BFF, FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton). In South Boston, the Angiulo’s (the Mafia crime family) runs the city, and the FBI would do anything to stop them, even making a deal with the devil. . .that being Bulger and his local small-time crime syndicate. Jimmy agrees to be an informant for the FBI on the Angiulo family IF they agree to “overlook” his crime activity AND he’ll will only talk to agent Connelly as his liaison.

Untouched from the law, Bulger continues his reign of killing, running drugs, numbers, and racketeering with his crazy friends, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and hitman Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). And all this happens with the consent of the FBI because they get occasional intel on the other crime families. Finally, FBI director McGuire (Kevin Bacon) wants the Angiulo family brought down, and with that done, Bulger is made the #1 crime lord in all of South Boston. The years roll on by with Bulger and Connelly forming a sort of partnership, giving each other info and favors, as the body count and the drug money starts to skyrocket.

But, in 1996, a new hard-nosed FBI director comes in, and all bets are off. Bulger becomes the prime target of the FBI’s most wanted list and arrests are made, testimonies are taken, and Bulger escapes into the night. Eventually, Jimmy is caught in 2011 in Santa Monica and is now serving two consecutive life terms in prison. BTW, he did NOT want to help make this movie in any way.

Based on a 2001 book by Boston journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neil, the screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mallouk is spotty at best. Told in stops and starts, it never really finds a foothold as the story jumps around in Bulger’s episodic life. Some scenes are long and drawn out, others are exciting and captivating. Apparently, the writers and director Scott Cooper saw Goodfellas, Casino, The Godfather, and A Bronx Tale as many of the scenes seem very familiar in tone and style.

But even with all the unevenness, the performances here are wonderful. Both Aussie Edgerton and Brit Cumberbatch do great Boston accents and are very good here, but it’s Depp who redeems himself from his last fiasco’s (Transcendence and Mordecai) with a scary good Oscar worthy showing here. He gives a loose cannon/psycho performance here that’s especially noticeable in a brilliant dinner scene when he asks about steak’s secret flavoring and very reminiscent to Pesci’s “You think I’m funny?” scene in Goodfellas.

As in all ‘based on a true story’ movies, the real story is SO much more interesting than the movie’s version. Do yourself a favor and read up on Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, as I did, and find out more about this lunatic and his life as a career criminal. It’s far more fascinating than this movie.                                    

White Heat (1949)

“Made it, Ma!! Top of the world!” You can’t say that quote and not think of this terrific gangster noir movie starring the amazing James Cagney as the psychotic Arthur “Cody” Jarrett. A film deemed “historically important” by the National Film Registry, this movie has it all: gangsters, shoot-outs, gorgeous dames, and an Oedipus-dominated madman that you DO NOT want to cross!

Meet Arthur “Cody” Jarrett (Cagney), a ruthless, deranged criminal gang leader that, even though he’s married to Verna, a blonde bombshell (Virginia Mayo), he has a severe attachment to his equally crooked and ruthless mother, “Ma” Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly). Cody also suffers from debilitating migraines which Ma comforts him by stroking his head or giving him a shot of whiskey with the toast, “Top of the world”. Yeah, they’re kinda close. . .
After a train heist and some murderers, Cody shoots and injures a U.S. Treasury investigator and is finally imprisoned. But all that stolen money that Cody has is somewhere, so undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) goes in as inmate ‘Vic Pardo’ and tries to buddy-up to Cody to find out more. Luckily, ‘Vic’ saves Cody’s life in prison and the two become pals, especially after Cody goes quite nuts upon hearing his dear mother has gone to Heaven. . .or maybe that other place.
Cody escapes the slammer with cellmates Vic and Parker (Paul Guilfoyle) and Parker, locked in the getaway car trunk, gets calmly gunned down by Cody, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Too bad that Cody doesn’t know that his treacherous wife Verna actually killed his mother and is planning on staging a coup within the gang’s ranks.
Meanwhile, Cody has developed a liking for Vic and not only tells him about the stolen loot, but also about their secret country hideout AND their next big job: stealing the mega payroll at a chemical plant in Long Beach! Vic/Hank manages to get a message to the police and an ambush is laid. The trap is set and when the gang arrives, the police call on Cody and his outlaws to surrender, but you know that ain’t that gonna happen.
A fire-fight erupts, Cody guns down those who try giving themselves up (harsh!), the police take Verna in custody, and Cody flees to the top of a gigantic globe-shaped gas storage tank. Outgunned and out-maneuvered, Cody starts firing at the tank and shouts, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” KABOOM!! What an ending!
Based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, the dynamite screenplay is by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, both of whom wrote Cagney’s wonderful Man of a Thousand Faces Lon Chaney bio-pic. Directed by Raoul Walsh, who directed a ridiculous amount of movies (1914-1957), this is considered one of his very best. Acting-wise, it’s top-notch with Cagney as a mamma’s-boy gone insane and Mayo playing against type as his scheming wife. You really got to rent this!