Johnny Depp is chillingly good as Boston crime lord ‘Whitey’ Bulger

Warner Bros.

“Black Mass” plays like a really good cover of a classic.

The film isn’t trying to be anything more than another entry in the gangster crime canon, a drug-lord biopic at that, and it succeeds.

The film tells the story of infamous Boston criminal James “Whitey” Bulger.

Johnny Depp, in his best role in years, is the head of the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang that rose to dominate the Boston underworld from 1975 to 1995 by leveraging a long-term “alliance” with the FBI to further control territory and take the action beyond state lines.

It’s a familiar story with all its executions, double-crossing, and deep-seeded corruption, but it is livened up by a fantastic ensemble cast and a script that isn’t too concerned with abiding by conventions.

“Black Mass” is a performance movie through and through. While Depp’s exaggerated transformation into the character reeks of a make-up-and-wig performance on surface level, there’s more to it than that. Depp is genuinely great here, and he actually gives it his all for the first time in years.

black mass johnny depp close

Warner Bros.

His performance is understated and fairly low-key. His presence on-screen is commanding – a few scenes are so chilling that you will still be thinking about them hours later. He’s a terrifying force who can turn excessively violent on a dime, and nobody in his crosshairs is safe.

The supporting cast is just as worthy of praise. Joel Edgerton in particular is terrific as an FBI agent caught between doing his job and maintaining his childhood kinship, and Corey Stoll’s brief but memorable turn as a federal prosecutor is a joy to watch as well. Peter Sarsgaard and Kevin Bacon are also flawless in their roles as a coke-fueled Miami hustler and an FBI manager, respectively.

“Black Mass” does work against type and takes steps to ensure it doesn’t fall too firmly into overly familiar territory. While it can’t escape comparisons to “The Departed” or [insert any other gangster film here], it never falls victim to the common biopic problem of trying to cram too much of Bulger’s rise and fall into the story.

black mass boston

Warner Bros.

Its composition, while seemingly haphazard, streamlines the important details so you never truly feel its two-hour running time.

Still, it’s far from perfect. The flashback structure – a cheap and overused narrative device – gives the filmmakers some breathing room, but it also compromises the flow of the narrative. There’s no getting around the fact that the jumps in time are jarring both tonally and thematically, but they are forgivable in context as the scenes that follow are always compelling.

“Black Mass” may not fully live up to the genre staples, but it is a solid true-crime flick elevated by its collection of unforgettable performances.

Watch the trailer below.