Yes, that's Johnny Depp, balding and steely-eyed, glaring out from the poster for "Black Mass," in which he plays notorious Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger. It's almost stunt casting -- the fine-featured Hollywood actor as a Southie sleazeball -- but Depp turns in one of his most convincing performances in years. If anything, "Black Mass" focuses so intently on its star that the film's more interesting aspects don't get the attention they deserve.
Based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, "Black Mass" explains how James Bulger -- always called Jimmy, despite his better-known nickname -- managed to run a wide-ranging crime ring and kill virtually anyone he pleased (19 victims that we know of) for roughly 20 years with barely a peep from law enforcement. As the film tells it, the answer is simple: Jimmy was an informant for FBI agent John Connolly (an excellent Joel Edgerton), who happened to be a childhood friend. As an added wrinkle, Jimmy's brother, William (Benedict Cumberbatch), became president of the state senate.
Jimmy may be a more grounded role than Depp's recent outré creations (say, Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean"), but they're still of a piece. Jimmy's slicked-back hair, age freckles and milky blue contacts compose a costume that sometimes feels distracting. Still, Depp paints an exceptionally scary portrait of a serial killer, a walking moral abyss wearing a gold chain and a cheap jacket.
Stylistically, there isn't much to distinguish "Black Mass" from any of a hundred other mobster movies, particularly Martin Scorsese's genre-defining "GoodFellas" (1990), but the film packs a punch. Director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart") and writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth nicely illustrate Jimmy's stranglehold on his turf (Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane and W. Earl Brown play his unsavory entourage) and his canny way of gaming a corrupted system (Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Corey Stoll play the hamstrung authorities). In the end, Jimmy destroys nearly everyone he touches on both sides of the law.
"Black Mass" sometimes overlooks the emotional impact of its narrative in favor of driving home Jimmy's sheer brutality and nastiness. Still, it's a compelling, true-life tale of power, loyalty, betrayal and ruin.
Four more: Inside the Irish mob
"Black Mass" isn't the first movie to deal with members of Boston's Irish mob. Here are four other movies that show gangsters getting their Irish up in Beantown.
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973) -- Robert Mitchum had one of his best roles as Coyle, a small-time hood who turns informer to avoid a prison stretch. Once the mob gets wind of what he's done, they arrange for his best friend to take care of Coyle.
THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (1999) -- A pair of Irish brothers accidentally bump off a pair of mob guys and take it as a sign that their calling is to rid their neighborhood of every drug pusher, thug and crime boss they encounter.
THE DEPARTED (2006) -- Martin Scorsese's suspenseful tale of two snitches -- a cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) assigned to infiltrate the mob and a criminal (Matt Damon) working as a mole within the state police -- racked up four Oscars, including best picture and director.
THE TOWN (2010) -- Ben Affleck wrote, directed and starred in this crime story of a bank robbery that doesn't go exactly as planned when the crooks leave with more than just some sacks of money -- a hostage whom they aim to make sure doesn't rat on them after she's released.-- Daniel Bubbeo