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Review: 'Black Mass' a flawed, flat telling of Whitey Bulger's life

By all accounts, Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger was a monster. That's exactly how Johnny Depp plays him in Black Mass, a dark blob of underworld cliches and bad contact lenses.

Let's put the movie's obvious distraction right out front: Apparently Bulger, now 86 and incarcerated, sees the inside of his cell through corpse blue eyes with pupils that never dilate, retaining a creepy pinpoint even at night. At least those are the lenses Depp chooses to wear, better suited for a goth concert or Halloween.

I couldn't take my eyes off Depp's eyes during Black Mass, wondering if it hurt to blink, or if director Scott Cooper was actually taking the monster motif all the way. Certainly Depp's role has the flat dramatic arc of a Freddy or Jason, immediately set up as a psycho killer and never wavering. The thrill is the kill, and seeing the right ones get it.

But who are the right ones in Cooper's movie? There isn't a single role besides put-upon women approaching relatable in Black Mass, no one to care about making it out alive. Monsters can be charismatic; we can be attracted and repulsed at once, as Bulger's legacy inspired Jack Nicholson's mob boss in The Departed. Black Mass is a terminally amoral movie in need of a decent good guy.

Not even the FBI can be trusted. Joel Edgerton counterbalances Depp's droning underplay with brash Bah-stahn bluster as agent John Connolly. Bulger once rescued him from a playground beating, so there's a element of hero worship in their "alliance" to take down a rival Italian mob. Connolly is a red flag character in cahoots that are transparent to everyone except the FBI, the screenplay's constant source of "whaa?"

Early on, Cooper's movie finds an episodic rhythm and follows it to dramatic cul-de-sacs. Just turn around and head somewhere else, from Bulger's dealings with jai alai frontons in Miami to shipping weapons to the Irish Republican Army. Most subplots end the same, with Depp's monotone dese-dem-dose speech setting up another brutal deposit to his burial ground under a bridge.

The movie ends before the material that could make for a more unique underworld drama. Bulger's 26-year flight from justice — a taunting worldwide journey including a Clearwater condo Bulger owned in the 1990s — might be a nifty cat-and-rat game.

Instead, Black Mass becomes a parade of fine actors putting on their best Beantown accents in violently familiar vignettes. Benedict Cumberbatch fares best as Bulger's politician brother, staying in the picture since blood is thicker than fratricide. Others frustrate by their brevity; Peter Sarsgaard as a coked-up fall guy, Adam Scott and Kevin Bacon back at FBI headquarters, and Corey Stoll showing up late as a state prosecutor (finally, a good guy).

Spanning the 1970s and 80s doesn't inspire much in the way of period design compared to The Departed, or even a great film from the period, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, that would seem like a smart reference point. Just a little something more adding up to less of a movie. Black Mass has more issues than Depp's eyes to keep mine rolling.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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