Jungle Cruise review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Édgar Ramírez, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 127 min
Opens : 29 July 2021 (Sneaks 28 July)
Rating : PG13

“Weird Al” Yankovic has a song called “Skipper Dan,” a melancholic tale of a Juilliard grad who must settle for being a Disney theme park cast member, playing the skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride. It’s a song about how following one’s dreams can often end in soul-crushing tedium, something this critic certainly knows nothing about. Anyway, we’re getting an upgrade from Skipper Dan to Skipper Dwayne in this movie based on said theme park ride.

It is 1916. English botanist Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is in search of the fabled Tears of the Moon, a tree deep in the Amazon jungle which has petals said to cure any ailment. Lily’s brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) would much rather live a luxurious existence but is dragged along on the expedition by his sister. Arriving in Brazil, they come across Skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who gives river tours on his beat-up steamboat La Quila and is armed with corny one-liners. Frank is not above a bit of grifting and deception to get by, and behind on his payments to harbourmaster Nilo (Paul Giamatti), jumps at the chance to ferry Lily and McGregor when he finds out they are rich. Also hunting for the Tears of the Moon is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), an obsessive German aristocrat who takes a submarine into the Amazon. The Houghton siblings and Frank must battle all manner of obstacles, including undead Conquistadors led by the ruthless Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez).

Jungle Cruise is a throwback and one that a certain section of moviegoers will find welcome. The poster is deliberately evocative of Drew Struzan’s classic painted movie posters, though it isn’t actually created by him. This movie is a throwback in that it’s a period adventure movie, but also a throwback to a time before Disney owned intellectual property like Marvel and Star Wars and before they were regularly remaking their animated films. Disney’s most successful attempt at turning a theme park attraction into a potential film franchise was with Pirates of the Caribbean, which Jungle Cruise bears many similarities to. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, known for directing Liam Neeson-starring thrillers like Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter, aims to recapture the spirit of those rip-roaring adventures. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography is textured and warm, while James Newton Howard provides a rousing score. There is some haunting horror movie-adjacent imagery, especially the one undead Conquistador who is covered in honeycombs and bees, Candyman-style.

Emily Blunt puts in a wonderful starring turn, as a spirited woman who has been rejected from her chosen field based on being a woman. There are notes of studio-ordered “strong woman protagonist,” but Blunt transcends that with an energetic, committed turn. Jesse Plemons plays against type, channelling Christoph Waltz as a power-mad royal, making for an entertaining villain.

Adventure stories are often intrinsically tied to a fundamentally colonialist worldview: the hero is often a European or American man outrunning the spear-wielding savages. Sometimes, a village is in dire straits, and only the hero can save the primitive folk. One can’t help but cringe at such depictions, with movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom being straight-up racist. Jungle Cruise subverts this with its portrayal of indigenous Amazon tribespeople and seems to be very conscious of the uncomfortable colonial undertones that many movies in this genre possess, intentional or otherwise. We won’t give too much away, but there is a commendable attempt at addressing one of the more controversial elements of the ride.

Jungle Cruise can sometimes feel like a facsimile of a facsimile – it invokes Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones, which in turn were inspired by movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jungle Cruise can either be taken as refreshing, given how different it is from the standard summer blockbuster one might get in 2021, or somewhat stale, given its old-fashioned sensibilities which have been processed through the Disney studio machine. It’s impossible to ignore how much this movie wants to be The Mummy (1999): Frank is analogous to Rick, Lily to Evelyn, McGregor to Jonathan and Aguirre to Imhotep. Alas, it’s some ways off from that. The midsection sags, and at 127 minutes, this feels a shade too long. The movie is filled with computer-generated animals, and one would think that after 2016’s Jungle Book, Disney would have mastered this art, but sometimes the animals can’t help but feel a little artificial.

Unfortunately, Dwayne Johnson is a major problem with this movie. Sure, he’s charismatic as always and can play a roguish adventure movie hero in his sleep, but he just doesn’t fit with the WWI-era setting and shares little romantic chemistry with Blunt, such that the love story subplot becomes actively uncomfortable. Frank is inspired by Humphrey Bogart’s steamboat captain character from The African Queen – this is Bogey if he ate 14 egg whites for breakfast and if his boat had a gym hidden somewhere. Johnson’s larger-than-life presence, which has served him well in many other roles, is distracting and doesn’t complement the setting or story. Perhaps someone like Pedro Pascal, Rodrigo Santoro or Oscar Isaac might have fit the role better. However, there is an excellent scene in the second act in which Frank’s intriguing backstory is revealed.

Summary: While somewhat derivative, Jungle Cruise will scratch that adventure movie itch for audiences who are starved of movies like Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone and The Mummy (1999). Emily Blunt showcases her strengths in a role that seems tailored for her, while Dwayne Johnson can’t help but feel out of place even as he brings his trademark charisma to bear. Jungle Cruise also reckons with uncomfortable, outmoded adventure movie tropes in a worthwhile way.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Post movie review

For inSing

THE POST

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Allison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods
Genre : Biography/Drama/Historical
Run Time : 1h 56 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : PG13

         Every awards season, there are bound to be at least a few ‘big important movies’ – films based on true events that have a timely relevance, boasting pedigree in front of and behind the camera. The Post ticks all those boxes.

It is 1971. The New York Times runs a story about how the U.S. government has been lying about the Vietnam War to the public, based on leaked clandestine reports which document the ongoing war, going back over 20 years. These reports were compiled on the instructions of Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Secretary of Defence, for academic study.

Katherine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female owner of The Washington Post, is about to publicly list the paper. While the Initial Public Offering will broaden the Post’s reach, Graham also fears losing the control entrusted to her by her late husband, who succeeded Graham’s father as the owner of the paper.

President Nixon and the Attorney General file an injunction against The New York Times, taking the paper to court over the story. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees the opportunity to dig further into the story. Assistant Editor Ben Bagdikan (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down the source, former analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), and procures more than 4000 pages of the Pentagon Papers. Graham must choose whether to publish, at the risk of her and Bradlee being imprisoned, and with the paper at stake.

The sitting President of the United States has made no secret of his disdain for the press, branding any outlet which runs stories unfavourable to him as “fake news”. This climate prompted Steven Spielberg to rush The Post into production, and he made this film while his next movie Ready Player One was in post-production. The Post makes a statement about the importance of the freedom of the press, but perhaps it makes that statement a little too obviously. “We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable — my god, who will?” Bradlee exclaims, in one of several lines that spell out what the film is about.

Because The Post is made by people who more than know what they’re doing, it gets a lot right. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn (with additional editing by Sarah Broshar) do their usual fine work. The movie looks and sounds like how one would expect a 70s-set political thriller to look, and the setting feels authentic – complete with a multitude of unfortunate hairdos. While the first half of the film can be somewhat dry, things get genuinely thrilling as the movie heads towards an exciting conclusion. The stakes are clearly established, and it’s clear that the decisions the characters must make are consequential ones.

Behind the scenes, there’s the success story of Liz Hannah, for whom every aspiring screenwriter’s dream came true: her first screenplay was made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for co-writing Spotlight, rewrote Hannah’s script. Hannah had long been fascinated with Graham, and the writer’s boyfriend encouraged her to pen a screenplay about the newspaper heiress.

The Post wants to be a personal story in addition to being a historical account, but struggles with the balance. A scene between Graham and her daughter Lally (Allison Brie) comes off as a slightly awkward attempt to generate emotion while also supplying some backstory.

The Post is at its best when its talented actors are turned loose. Putting Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in a scene together, regardless of context, is bound to produce electrifying results. The role of Kay Graham is comfortably in Streep’s wheelhouse: a powerful woman grappling with a monumental dilemma. Graham must make her way in a man’s world, facing doubt at every turn. She remains warm and personable even in the face of adversity, and is at once a magnetic and comforting presence.

Hanks has fun, biting into the role with relish. Bradlee is a dogged, persistent editor, who is described at one point as a “pirate”. Bradlee is a little more abrasive than your standard charming, affable Hanks part, and he spars with Graham and other characters throughout the film. Hanks and Streep visibly enjoy playing off each other, and Spielberg brings out the best in his stars.

The supporting cast is first-rate too: Paulson is especially likeable as Bradlee’s wife Antoinette, and gets an excellent scene in which she lays out why she admires Graham as Bradlee seems to dismiss his boss’ predicament. Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk is funny and down-to-earth as assistant editor Ben Bagdikan, who flies back to Washington with the Papers safely buckled into the airplane seat next to him.

There’s no denying that The Post is timely and well-made, but perhaps it’s a little too aware of its status as a big important movie. It takes audiences from Point A to B with enough clarity, but perhaps not enough nuance, and it will be hard for some viewers to see past how obviously The Post is calibrated for awards season appeal.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hostiles movie review

For inSing

HOSTILES

Director : Scott Cooper
Cast : Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Q’orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet
Genre : Adventure/Drama/Western
Run Time : 2h 14m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : NC-16

Over years and years of westerns, it’s been ingrained in popular culture that ‘Cowboys = good, Indians = bad’. While there have been several films in the past that have attempted to redress this balance, there have been far from enough, and Native American history is often misinterpreted, glossed over or otherwise done a disservice in Hollywood movies. Hostiles is writer-director Scott Cooper’s take on this.

It is 1892, and Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), who is about to retire from the military, receives his final mission, by order of President Harrison. Blocker is to escort the elderly Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his homeland of Bear Valley, Montana. Also in the party are Yellow Hawk’s son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Black Hawk’s wife Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) and the couple’s son. Many of Blocker’s men had died at Yellow Hawk’s hands, hence Blocker’s resistance in aiding Chief in any way.

Along the way, Blocker and his men encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a widow whose family was brutally murdered by Comanche warriors. Rosalie joins Blocker and company, but the road to Montana will not be a smooth one. Along the way, they must brave attacks from warring tribes, fend off avaricious fur trappers, and escort treacherous prisoner Philip Wills (Ben Foster) north. Blocker must try to forgive, or at least tolerate, a man whom he has spent much of his life hating, as each learns to see the other’s point of view.

Hostiles is based on an unproduced manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart, which Cooper has adapted for the screen. This is a downbeat, uncompromisingly brutal film. Given the subject matter, it should be a degree of grave, but Hostiles just wears the audience down, never providing even the briefest moment of levity. One gets the impression that the film functions more as a political statement than as a story. Its heart is in the right place, but there is still considerable nuance left unmined, the result being occasionally clumsy.

The characters are fleshed out reasonably well and are given dialogue that is never painfully on-the-nose. They are all weighed down by something or another, and while there are moments that approach poignancy, Hostiles often feels more like a slog than an involving, powerful drama.

Christian Bale has repeatedly proven over his career that he’s a dab hand at playing the tortured hero. Blocker is someone whose hatred of Native Americans is deep-seated and intertwined with painful events from his past. We see that despite how Blocker has hardened his heart, he is still capable of great empathy and compassion, which he directs towards Rosalie. This is an expectedly intense performance from a famously intense actor, but the character’s arc is all too predictable.

Pike’s portrayal of a woman who has barely survived an unthinkable trauma and is now at her breaking point is heart-rending and wince-inducing in the right ways. It can be argued that Rosalie has the most compelling personal arc in the film, and it’s a role that Pike bites into. However, we know it won’t be long before the film suggests (at the very least) a romance between Rosalie and Blocker, with this relationship becoming the film’s emotional centre.

While Studi lends a quiet, stern authority to the Yellow Hawk role, the film does not give him equal power to Blocker in deciding the direction of the narrative. The Comanche are depicted as villains, with the Cheyenne as the film’s heroes. The film ostensibly wants to undo the old dichotomy of heroic cowboys and villainous Indians, but still needs ‘savages’ for audiences to root against. Kilcher spends most of the film silent and with her head bowed, and the film would have benefitted from giving the Native American characters more agency in the narrative.

The supporting roles are all inhabited with sufficient authenticity, but as with many films of this type, Hostiles struggles to make Blocker’s men seem distinct. Rory Cochrane conveys a distant hauntedness, Blocker shares a sincere, tearful moment with his right-hand man Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), and Ben Foster gets to play quite the scoundrel, but the motley crew isn’t sufficiently memorable.

Even as it unfolds against sweeping landscapes and features actors giving the material their best, Hostiles feels considerably longer than its 135 minutes. While it’s clear that the film is made with noble intentions, its still encumbered by certain trappings of the Western genre, and doesn’t the deliver the depth which it promises.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

American Made

For F*** Magazine

AMERICAN MADE 

Director : Doug Liman
Cast : Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright Olsen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke, Lara Grice, Jed Rees, Caleb Landry Jones
Genre : Biopic/Comedy/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 31 August 2017
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scene And Coarse Language)

As the star of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Tom Cruise has performed many daring stunts. In American Made, he plays someone who, by his own admission, leaps before he looks. It is 1978, and TWA pilot Barry Seal (Cruise) is recruited by CIA operative Schaefer (Gleeson) to take surveillance photos of communist rebels in South America. Soon, Seal is tasked with supplying the Nicaraguan Contras with American-supplied arms. Seal is also hired by the Medellín Cartel, transporting shipments of cocaine from Colombia and Panama to the United States. Seal’s wife Lucy (Wright Olsen) and their young children relocate from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Mena, Arkansas. Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport becomes the base of operations for Seal’s burgeoning concern, as Seal rakes in the cash and evades the long arm of the law by becoming a DEA informant and operative. As a player in a game with dizzyingly high stakes, it will take all of Seal’s wits to keep him from crashing and burning.

American Made reteams Cruise with his Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, who crafts a free-wheeling retro comedy thriller which is as engaging as it is entertaining. This is based on a true story, and you might know the name ‘Barry Seal’ from films and TV shows like Doublecrossed, The Infiltrator and Narcos. American Made certainly feels like the ‘Hollywood version’ of Seal’s story: despite the twists and turns, the narrative is so straightforward as to feel simplified and streamlined to keep things moving along. This is to say nothing of the fact that Cruise doesn’t resemble the real-life Barry Seal, who was pudgy and balding, in the slightest.

However, the way the film is assembled and the way screenwriter Gary Spinelli structures the plot, it’s easy to get swept up in the proceedings. Much of the comedy is derived from the inherent absurdity of the situations that Seal gets caught up in, and the film open acknowledges how crazy everything is without coming off as too flippant. It’s comparable in tone to 1990’s Air America, which starred Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson as unwitting drug smuggling pilots during the Vietnam War.

Liman has considerable fun with the film’s style: the opening Universal Studios logo is interrupted by the old-school logo from the 70s, and the other production companies get retro-fied logos too. Uruguayan cinematographer César Charlone of City of God fame provides a mix of slick sweeping aerial shots and 70s-style handheld closeups, with the heat of the South American jungles radiating off the screen. The plane pursuit sequences are realistic and hair-raising, but came at a cost. Tragically, stunt pilot Alan D. Purwin and his Venezuelan co-pilot, Carlos Berl, died in a crash caused by foggy weather near Medellin, Colombia.

Barry Seal was a cog in a much larger machine, but this film places him front and centre and the film is Cruise’s to carry the whole way. The embarrassing dud that was this year’s reboot of The Mummy made some feel that Cruise’s star power was starting to wane, but American Made sees him back in top form. As the morally ambiguous charming rogue who’s in over his head but loving it, the Seal character is right in Cruise’s wheelhouse.

Cruise eclipses everyone else in the movie, such that the supporting players barely make an impact. Gleeson affects a convincing American accent as CIA operative Schaefer, who registers as a cipher and a composite character of some kind. Wright Olsen is, as expected from films of this type, relegated to the role of ‘the wife’, fretting over her husband’s questionable activities but eager to enjoy the lifestyle that said activities fund. Caleb Landry Jones visibly enjoys playing Lucy’s troublemaking, ne’er-do-well brother, whose sloppiness puts Seal in danger of being found out. It all revolves around Cruise and the other characters seem incidental, reinforcing the ideal of Seal as a mythic antihero around whom other forces revolve. It’s fine because Cruise’s performance more than anchors the film, but it does remind us that we’re watching a movie, detracting some authenticity from the real story.

American Made is a movie that’s powered by Cruise’s megawatt grin. Because it’s pitched as a comedy, the murky morality never becomes something audiences will think too deeply about. We’re invited to join the antihero on the ride of his life, and Liman spins an engrossing, invigorating yarn. With Cruise in the cockpit, this ride is an eminently enjoyable one.

Summary: A high-spirited biopic that packs in the laughs and thrills, American Made doesn’t delve deeply enough into the political intrigue to be very substantive, but it’s an entertaining, well-made Tom Cruise vehicle all the same.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Program

For F*** Magazine

THE PROGRAM 

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet, Dustin Hoffman
Genre : Drama/Sport
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : NC16 (Some Drug Use And Coarse Language)

We all remember Jeff Goldblum muttering to himself “must go faster, must go faster”, while being pursued by dinosaurs (and later, aliens). What happens when a man lives his life solely in the pursuit of going faster, at any cost? Lance Armstrong (Foster), having defeated cancer and becoming the darling of the professional cycling world, is admired and adored the world over, both for his multiple Tour de France championship titles and his charity work. David Walsh (O’Dowd), a sports journalist with the Sunday Times in the UK, begins to suspect that Armstrong may be using performance-enhancing drugs, despite Armstrong’s repeated and empathic claims to the contrary. Sports doctor Michele Ferrari (Canet) has devised “the program”, a sophisticated doping regimen that Armstrong and all the cyclists on his team are put on. The illicit drug use is enabled by Armstrong’s agent Bill Stalpleton (Pace) and the team’s directeur sportif Johann Bruyneel (Menochet). This weighs on the conscience of Floyd Landis (Plemons), a promising cyclist recruited onto the team, as Walsh gets ever closer to uncovering the devastating truth.


            The Program is inspired by David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. The film’s approach is that of a David vs. Goliath tale, with an honest journalist battling the odds to expose the deceit of a nigh-untouchable superstar athlete. As such, it is as much an “uncovering the scandal” thriller as it is a biopic, with sports in place of politics. Seeing as that’s the starting point, this was never going to be a particularly objective or balanced account of Armstrong’s life, and to an extent, that’s fine. Director Stephen Frears, whose recent credits include The Queen and Philomena, is an experienced filmmaker and The Program is assembled with style and panache. As a takedown of a false idol, it is aggressive and damning, but as a thoughtful investigative drama, it lacks clear-eyed credibility.

            The movie’s pacing is appropriately brisk, Valerio Bonelli’s editing making it all quite a heady trip. Screenwriter John Hodge ensures events unfold coherently and efficiently. Even if one isn’t into pro cycling, The Program is likely to hold one’s attention and it’s a dynamic, even thrilling film. However, it doesn’t take much to step back and go “wait a second, just how Hollywood-ed up is this thing?” The Lance Armstrong story has all the elements that make for a compelling true story: deceit, betrayal and conspiracy on a very public stage, but all those elements feel drummed up and slightly inauthentic here. Furthermore, it’s all ground that’s already been covered in Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie. This reviewer was hoping the film would explore the effect that Armstrong’s deception had on his family and others close to him in more detail, but The Program trundles down a different path. Armstrong meets his wife Kristin Richard (Chloe Hayward), marries her in the next scene, and she’s never actually seen again, since that would slow things down.


            Armstrong as portrayed by Foster isn’t just a villain, he’s a supervillain. The film’s depiction of the cyclist is a man seduced by and obsessed with victory, a master manipulator and a detestable, unrepentant fraud. With an inspiring, carefully-constructed public persona hiding sneering malice, giving rousing speeches and comforting children in cancer wards while threatening any and all who would give away his secret, Armstrong is basically Lex Luthor. Foster puts in an electrifying, passionate performance, but it is one almost entirely devoid of nuance and altogether too difficult to take seriously. On hearing of Walsh’s accusations, Armstrong bellows “I am Lance Armstrong and he is f***ing no-one!” as he strides down a grand staircase in his mansion. Doing a spot of method acting that we’ll neither condone nor condemn, Foster actually took performance-enhancing drugs under medical supervision to better get under Armstrong’s skin.

            O’Dowd’s Walsh is a standard-issue “dogged reporter” hero, dedicated to his family and to his profession, persistent in hunting the truth to the bitter end. The character is so idealised that it’s impossible to overlook that the real-life Walsh’s account of events was the primary source for the film, and if Armstrong is a supervillain, then that must make Walsh a superhero. O’Dowd is likeable without trying too hard, and for an actor better known for playing the goofy schlub in many a comedy, he puts in a solid dramatic turn.


Canet is spectacularly over the top in this, playing Dr. Michele Ferrari like a mad scientist in a monster movie, exaggerated accent and all. “No longer confined to the earth, now we can learn to fly,” he intones, squirting droplets of Erythropoietin from a syringe. Plemons, truly coming into his own as a capable character actor, is very sympathetic as Floyd Landis, who was raised a devout Mennonite and whose father strongly discouraged his pursuit of cycling. Dustin Hoffman makes a brief appearance as Bob Hamman, the founder of SCA Promotions who sought the repayment of $10 million in prize money after discovering Armstrong was doping. In what is likely a sly reference to The Graduate, The Lemonheads’ cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s song Mrs. Robinson is used in the film.
There’s a fun, bitingly cynical scene in the film, in which Armstrong and his teammates are having the performance enhancing drugs administered to them and are discussing who might play Armstrong in a movie. Matt Damon is out and Jake Gyllenhaal, whose name Armstrong mispronounces, is in. It’s a good thing Hollywood waited. The Program isn’t all that incisive or searing, more an entertaining diversion than awards contender prestige pic, but it is a rip-roaring ride.

Summary:Slick and entertaining but ultimately superficial, Ben Foster’s delicious albeit obvious lead performance keeps this biopic on track.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Black Mass

For F*** Magazine

BLACK MASS

Director : Scott Cooper
Cast : Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Saarsgard, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 122 mins
Opens : 17 September 2015
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language And Violence)

A “Black Mass” is a type of Satanic ritual, a dark inversion of the Catholic Mass. This true crime drama recounts the profane partnership between the FBI and one of the most notorious gangsters in United States history. James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) is the head of the Irish-American Winter Hill gang in South Boston. His brother Billy (Cumberbatch) is a United States senator. Their childhood friend John Connolly (Edgerton), now an FBI agent, approaches Whitey with the offer of becoming an informant in order to take down the rival Angiulo crime family. As Whitey’s clout increases, he begins to be more brazen in his criminal activities, with his fingers in everything from drug trafficking to a Jai alai betting racket to funding the Irish Republican Army, almost casually killing anyone who crosses him. Whitey and his partners Stephen Flemmi (Cochrane), Kevin Weeks (Plemons) and Johnny Matorano (W. Earl Brown) continue their criminal reign of South Boston unchecked, benefitting from a deal with the Feds that seems too good to be true. 
Black Mass is based on the book Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. The “unholy alliance” between two childhood friends which would end up having untold ramifications is one of the most morbidly intriguing organized crime stories in recent memory. “Southie kids, we went straight from playing cops and robbers on the playground to doing it for real in the streets,” Kevin Weeks says in the police interview framing device. Working from a screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, director Scott Cooper has crafted a crime drama in the mould of Scorsese’s genre-defining mob movies. Black Mass is bleak but never boring to look at, thanks to Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography which is slick but not flashy. Cooper stages several moments that are bubbling over with almost unbearable intensity. It is often downright terrifying and it boggles the mind to think how long Whitey’s criminal activities were allowed to go on for. 
Post-Jack Sparrow, it has been difficult to take Johnny Depp very seriously, even with his three Oscar nods. You know it, we know it and Depp himself knows it too. Suffice it to say that this is a far cry from Mortdecai and is the best Depp has been in years. Great acting is about disappearing into the part, and with the help of special effects makeup designed by Depp’s oft-collaborator Joel Harlow, he does indeed. Cooper hired some of Whitey’s former associates as consultants and they looked at footage of Depp as Whitey, simply commenting “that’s Whitey.” Much of Depp’s later work has been characterized by traipsing about with wild abandon, so the subtle, understated quality he brings to bear with this performance is welcome. He convincingly essays a master manipulator, a savvy criminal with an unpredictable streak and delivers searing, disturbing turn as Whitey in what is definitely a high point in his career. 
While the film is primarily Depp’s to carry, there is a vast number of supporting players. Edgerton balances out Connolly’s self-confident air with his inner conflict between loyalty to a boyhood pal and duty to upholding the law, as his turning a blind eye to Whitey’s criminal exploits eventually snowballs. Edgerton does have a tendency to play the role a little broad, but he does bring a good deal of heart to the role. Replacing the initially-cast Guy Pearce, Benedict Cumberbatch gets precious little to do as Whitey’s brother Billy, and how Whitey could get away with so much when his brother was a senator is a plot point that is never explored to a satisfying extent. He makes a valiant attempt at a Boston accent but struggles to nail it. Kevin Bacon kind of floats in and out of the film as Connolly’s boss, spending most of his screentime haranguing the agent under his charge. As is the case with many mob movies, we don’t spend a lot of time with the female characters, but perhaps that’s just a reflection of the true story. Both Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson get to share excellent scenes with Depp though, one of which is skin crawlingly creepy. 
With its framing device of Whitey’s associates being interviewed by the police years after the fact, the film can come off as episodic rather than sweeping and involving, but it is riveting nonetheless. Director Cooper is clearly a student of the mob movie subgenre and while Black Mass owes a great deal to the work of Scorsese and his ilk, it doesn’t come off as mere mimicry, the violent consequences of his “unholy alliance” laid bare. 
Summary: A true crime biopic that gets under one’s skin, Black Mass may not reach the loftiest heights of the mob movie subgenre but it boasts a stellar, terrifying turn from Johnny Depp. 
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong