There was a time when Johnny Depp could seemingly do no wrong, but in recent years, he’s mistaken that goodwill for the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants, and it hasn’t really worked out in his favor. Not counting cameos and animated voice work, it’s been a while since Depp delivered a genuinely good performance. (You’d have to go all the way back to 2009’s “Public Enemies,” in which he played another famous gangster, John Dillinger.) But the actor finally stops the rot with his turn as the menacing Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass,” and though it isn’t exactly Oscar worthy, it’s just nice to see him back doing what he does best: creating complex, memorable characters instead of broadly painted caricatures.
The movie opens in 1975 as small-time criminal Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) begins to make a name for himself in South Boston with the help of his Winter Hill Gang, including trusted right-hand man Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), hitman John Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and muscle Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemmons). When one of Whitey’s old childhood friends, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), returns to Boston to clean up the streets by bringing down the Italian mafia, he suggests that Whitey become his informant – a mutually beneficial business arrangement that would allow John to get rid of the mob and give Whitey free reign over the city. But as John struggles to cover up Whitey’s growing criminal empire, he unknowingly places himself in the FBI’s crosshairs when his superiors begin to question how Whitey continues to get away with murder, sometimes quite literally.