Scott Cooper’s gangster biopic of infamous crime lord “Whitey” Bulger, wants to be a Boston-set Goodfellas but often mistakes grotesque caricatures for compelling characters.Black Mass should have made for great drama, but modern gangster productions simply don’t appear to be able to reach the same standards as in the glory days of Scorsese and Coppola, at least not on the Big Screen, grabbing at some of the elements that make for a great gangster epic, but never providing all of them. Despite the strength of the true story behind it – as ludicrous as it was, it could have made for more of a satire – something clearly went awry in bringing it to the screen. The production had been gestating for over 15 years, passed back and forth between various producers, writers and directors, with the end result going to director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of a Furnace) who did yet another rewrite. Cooper struggles with multiple strands and unnecessary secondary and tertiary characters and plot-lines, trying desperately to find a heart and soul to Bulger’s tale of patent psychopathy, whilst seemingly failing to grasp the fact that Bulger didn’t need to have a ‘good side’ in order to be a strong central character.Indeed, Bulger had, in spirit, already been brought to life by none other than Jack Nicholson in Scorsese’s Infernal Affairs remake, The Departed. If Nicholson’s performance proved anything, it was that you didn’t need to humanise this character to make him compelling. Nevertheless, the performances are universally impressive, with Edgerton feeling like he prepared for it by watching the equally disappointing American Hustle, whilst a colourful clutch of familiar faces (even under heavy makeup) bring Whitey’s cohorts to life. Of course it’s Depp’s baby, and he goes to great lengths to bring the character to life (and is far more committed than in his flawed but still frequently impressive Michael Mann period gangster epic Public Enemies), even if he does end up coming across as little more than a piercingly-blue-eyed Irish variation on Joe Pesci’s short-tempered Italian psychopath, Tommy, in Goodfellas. Ultimately, he’s just like everything else about this production: walking in the shadow of better movies.
Picture QualityBlack Mass reaches UK Region Free Blu-ray courtesy of Warner, complete with a strong 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video presentation framed in the movie’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 widescreen. Shot on film, it benefits from a suitably filmic texture and, consequently, a light sheen of grain, giving it a distinct look that suits the material.
Black Mass’s grim visuals and gloomy, colour-sapped environment are rendered faithfully with this strong video presentation.
Detail remains largely impressive, with no overt defects and strong clarity that renders the characters in all their demonic glory, with at times excellent skin texturing that brings these cartoonish mobsters to ugly life. The colour scheme is limited by the cloudy skies and intentionally gloomy tone, robbed of primaries but for in the more vibrant night club sequences, and brief dips into sunnier locales, but the palette is rendered well. Black levels are rich and deep, allowing for unflinching shadow detail, and rounding out a faithful video presentation of a film that isn’t exactly a visually opulent demo piece. It’s commendable work.
Sound QualityWarner's aural accompaniment for Black Mass is just as strong. Dialogue is promoted clearly and coherently throughout – despite the chewy Boston accents – predominantly across the fronts and centre channels, with prioritisation for the most part of the feature, over and above the observant atmospheric effects and soulful, melancholy accompanying score.
Black Mass’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track makes for an equally faithful, equally impressive accompaniment.
The effects salvo does include some more punchy flourishes, including the thunder of rifles and handguns, but they punctuate a more ambient balance of background noises, observing the bustle of bars and heaving nightclubs and the thrum of car engines and buzz of FBI offices. Although, again, it’s not exactly naturally demo-worthy, the track does a stand-up job of rendering the source material in a faithful, oftentimes impressive fashion.
ExtrasAlthough there’s no sign of the reported deleted footage that would have offered up a more expansive look at the last few years in this notorious criminal’s life (all of Sienna Miller’s scenes were cut), the extras on offer here are amidst the best, and arguably more informative and compelling than the main feature itself. The 20 minute Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime has the key cast and crew members chatting about the production, the original true tale and bringing the colourful characters to life, whilst Becoming Whitey Bulger spends 12 minutes focusing on Depp’s creation of the Bulger character, the research he did and the preparation to play the role authentically. Without a doubt the best offering, however, is the feature-length Documentary, The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger, which looks at the FBI’s decades-long investigation of Bulger in great detail and almost plays out as a pseudo-sequel to the main feature, albeit documentary in nature and is, ultimately, far more compelling.
Blu-ray VerdictBlack Mass has been quite rightly nicknamed Black Mess, it could and should have been so much better.
Warner's UK Region Free Blu-ray release, on the other hand, promotes solid video and audio as well as an excellent extras package which threatens to overshadow the film itself. Probably worth watching for the performances, many might find Black Mass a more suitable rental than a purchase but if you favour the latter then this is a solid release to pick up.
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