Film: Depp Shows dark side in 'Black Mass'.

Johnny Depp makes menacing return as Boston gangster

It is quite hard to pin-point Johnny Depp’s Hollywood career to date. In over 30 years working in tinseltown, Depp may arguably be best remembered for his lovable rogue, the rum-guzzling pirate Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean, however his latest work may yet prove his crowning glory.

In Black Mass, Depp plays infamous Boston gangster, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. The movie depicts the true story of Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most famous violent criminal in South Boston’s history, who became an informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf.

Scott Cooper is at the helm of this biopic crime drama, but was previously best known for directing Jeff Bridges in his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart (2009). He is however, no stranger to the crime genre from 2013’s Out of the Furnace, which had been getting significant Oscar buzz that year, before being shelved as merely an ‘also ran’.

Cooper’s direction is astute. In building the tension of the piece as nerves and careers are frayed on both sides of the law, Cooper pays close attention to close camera shots, as the body count and blood shed begin to rise inexorably.

Depp menaces in his role. Perhaps not of such a level as an Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, but nevertheless, Bulger slowly evolves into the ravenous serpent that he is – with a clever nod to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi who transforms Depp into the slithery reptile, portraying Bulger as the innocent blue-eyed killing monster inside. Depp’s turn as Bulger is a level up from his last biographical account – also of a renowned criminal – John Dillinger in Public Enemies (2009).

The ensemble cast knit the threads of the movie together nicely. Benedict Cumberbatch plays James Bulger’s senator brother Billy, with the just the right level of corruption and naivety. Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly, doesn’t particularly stand out however. It feels very much a role that could have been taken up a notch by a slightly better known actor.

One issue Black Mass faces, is that the modern-day biopic tends to be more of the dramatized offering, so in making it lean toward being a thriller, the movie feels a little lost. The average Hollywood biographical moves around one player in particular and so this proves once more.

For Johnny Depp, it would be hard to think of his movie career of late as anything more than caricature fodder. Sparrow, The Mad Hatter (Alice in Wonderland, 2010) and Willy Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005) to name but three all are firmly housed as fictional, powdery characters. But James ‘Whitey’ Bulger may change all that.

Depp has always been one of the most versatile actors of his generation but since his 1984 debut in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Depp’s Golden Globe for Sweeney Todd (2007) is his lone gong of real note. After a trio of Oscar nominations for ‘Todd, Finding Neverland and Curse of the Black Pearl from the Pirates of the Caribbean seemingly never-ending franchise, Black Mass is creating a huge buzz for Depp, with some corners suggesting the battle is between himself and another Academy award-lite heavyweight, Leonardo DiCaprio, for The Revenant.

Whatever the case this award season, Johnny Depp has made a winning return to his veteran roots.

Words of Neil Leverett