HOW often have you sat down in the cinema and had a sinking feeling that your chosen film is very quickly looking far too familiar?
I’d love to see a straw poll showing how many minutes into Black Mass it took for viewers to feel that distracting Deja vu and realise that the next two hours were going to be filled with another gangster clone, a Poundland version of The Departed.
Directors, such as Ridley Scott with American Gangster, have been here before and tried where others have failed instead of letting the genre rest in glorious peace unless there is something new to bring to the table.
While I was watching Black Mass in the ever-glorious Strand Cinema, I started to wonder – yes, the unengaging style left me with that much time on my hands – why movies are made within genres which have the quality bar already set almost impossibly high without originality being the starting point.
And, yes, The Departed may itself be a pale imitation of Internal Affairs (as spotted by a friend because, criminally, it is still on my to-watch list). However, Scorcese gets a free pass and the point stands.
Black Mass takes us back to ‘Southie’. Again. There we meet Johnny Depp, looking like a creepy cross between previous Ray Liotta and Matthew McConaughey outings when they were on uppers and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrence on downers. Perhaps with a dash of Heath Ledger’s Joker too (which brings us to Depp’s Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, but I digress).
This time a Senator, played with bored-looking indifference and a strained drawl by Benedict Cumberbatch, is brother to Johnny Depp’s gang boss. Both grew up in the same streets as an FBI Agent tasked with bringing down the local crime lords.
The problem being that you can see and hear the clichéd gangster lines and scenarios being set up, all accompanied with bursts of the type of violence that was already becoming boring in the late 90s.
Fans of classics such as Goodfellas may, then, be distracted by all the predicable moments appearing one-by-one: a body found in a car, sneaky meets by the docks, the doting mother, a clean-up of suspected Brussel sprouts and even – wait for it – a church scene and an attempt at the “funny how?” set-piece we already know and love.
Oh, and that’s not to mention a variation of the dusty old “24 hours or you’re off the case….I’ve got the Commissioner on my ass!” scene. I could hardly believe it was being cued up, however it gave me some welcome, but largely irrelevant, memories of So I Married An Axe Murder to pass a few minutes.
Back to the film. There’s an added reference to Northern Ireland and The Troubles, explained using crayons in the usual style we’ve come to expect, and a detour into the murky side of a now-obscure sport called Jai Alai which itself is worth a further Google.
Some major moments in the family life of Depp’s ‘Whitey’ Bulger seem to arrive with indecent haste and are then rushed through, as is a reference to Whitey winning the lottery and officially-sanctioned LCD experiments in jail (not spoilers: they are both confined to a passing mention).
There are some stand-out scenes (one featuring FBI Agent John Connolly’s wife) and a couple of Whitey’s crew even turn in enjoyable performances. However, the portrayal of John Connolly runs pretty close to unintentional, swaggering parody more than once.
The movie itself lacks the tactile feel of the period; the cinematography sets a claustrophobic tone and shows off the stark coldness of some stunning locations. And in this the movie has some strength as the bleak and grimy settings stay with you after the credits roll: I stopped my car below a dark underpass on the way home and was convinced John Edgerton was about to come sliding across the bonnet like a Beastie Boy in the Sabotage video. After all, they already have the costumes and facial hair perfected.
I agree with my fellow Banterflix contributor Leigh Forgie that it is good to see Johnny Depp having a mini-McConaissance moment (he’ll be back as Jack Sparrow soon enough unfortunately), however Black Mass ultimately felt like Scorsese-by-numbers without the vital hand of the director himself. As it happens, one character in the movie looks like a downmarket Jessica Ennis and it made me think that this was in some way symbolic, however I’ve strangled enough comparisons by now.
In case these Rants from the Middle Row should sink any further into a series of grumpy, pipe-and-slippers ‘Rants from Middle Age’ after my tirade against Man from UNCLE last time, myself and my parter Elle were wowed by Sicario (beautifully presented at QFT) and have been re-watching some glorious movies like A Matter of Life and Death, Casablanca (at the excellent Braid Film Club), Shame, American Beauty, Usual Suspects, 71 and La Haine.
But when it comes to our cinema screens, people more versed than I am in these things will say we are in the age of the re-make, the sequel and the safe bet. Which is why I’ll go back to the cinema when something original appears and keep wondering why films are made when there was no apparent need – aside from the obvious – to make the movie in the first place.
In the meantime we get Black Mass which, in all fairness, is reasonably atmospheric, would be watchable with a beer and is nicely done in places.
But not enough places to justify having been done at all.
Check out some of the films referenced within this article at BanterFlix’s online movie club