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dir Scott Cooper
scr Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
prd Scott Cooper, John Lesher, Patrick McCormick, Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson
with Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W Earl Brown, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple
release US 18.Sep.15, UK 27.Nov.15
15/US Warner 2h02
Watch your step: Edgerton and Depp
VENICE FILM FEST
TORONTO FILM FEST
|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
Gritty and muscular, this is the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger played as a rather standard FBI/mob thriller. It's sharply well-made, capturing a strong sense of the period, but nothing about the film sets it apart from the pack. Without an original angle, it feels like the same story of criminal ambition, betrayal and violence that we've seen countless times before.
In 1975 South Boston, Jimmy Bulger (Depp) controls the Irish mafia. FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton) grew up with Jimmy and his senator brother Billy (Cumberbatch), so asks them to help take down the rival Angiulo family. Jimmy seizes this chance to avoid prosecution and get rid of the competition. Over the next decade he expands his operation, unafraid to get his hands dirty cleaning up messes created by his increasingly annoyed goons (including Cochrane, Plemons and Brown). Meanwhile, mounting evidence makes it difficult for John to keep turning a blind eye.
The story is narrated through FBI interrogations that explain why these posturing tough guys spend so much time shouting at and killing each other. Yes, it's a relentlessly violent movie about men who wallow in their brutal way of life. And it's difficult to understand why we need to see this so simplistically dramatised in the wake of much more textured mob dramas like The Sopranos. Sure, it's a true story, but the inexorable machismo is more exhausting than illuminating.
Thuggish and demanding, with terrifying steely eyes, Depp brings a fearsome physicality to the role. But the film is careful to briefly depict a caring family-man side to this heartless killer. Edgerton is also clever, playing Connolly as more of a wannabe gangster than a federal agent. And there's fine support from the likes of a bright-eyed Cumberbatch, a thoughtful Cochrane and a vein-popping Bacon (as the local FBI boss). Few of the others survive beyond a scene or two.
Regardless of the impeccable direction and production design, this film never finds its moral centre. Even the cops are brutes, so it's impossible to root for anyone beyond the wives (truncated roles for Johnson and Nicholson). And without a voice of reason, the film ends up celebrating the criminal highlife as Bulger manipulates the system to build an empire. It's the usual groovy music and starry nightclubs cross-cut with cold-blooded murder. But Cooper and his screenwriters never find anything to say.
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© 2015 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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