We shall forever be fascinated by gangsters. They are
cinematic catnip. Sharply dressed, tough guys who rule the men around them, and
often get the girl. Watching legendary bad guys do their thing is downright
cathartic. They live the life you never will, and yet they’re punished for it
in the end. Gangster movies are often morality tales, variations on Icarus—the
men who flew too close to the sun embodied by power and control. Two such films
played at TIFF this year, and both featured powerful performances from their
leading men. However, that’s about where the similarities end.
My double feature of gangster glory (I literally saw these two back to back with mere minutes in between) started with Brian Helgeland’s “Legend,” a film that stars Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Christopher Eccleston, David Thewlis, Chazz Palminteri and, well, Tom Hardy. Yes, the always-fascinating Hardy appears twice, playing the notorious identical twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray. It absolutely is the bravura performance you’d expect. Reggie is the smooth-talking, well-dressed, smart brother. Ronnie is literally mentally insane. Hardy distinguishes the brothers so completely that you can tell which one is on screen without a line of dialogue to help clarify (or even Ronnie’s glasses). Reggie moves fluidly. Ronnie lumbers. Reggie proves without a doubt that Hardy could play Bond with his suave repartee. Ronnie always looks like he could pound a man to death. It’s too simple to say Hardy chose “brain” and “brawn” for the two, but he definitely made striking, distinct choices for both, without going as cartoonish as actors would have given the same opportunity.
Brian Helgeland’s film tracks the rise and fall of the Krays in the ‘60s in London. They basically rose to such legendary status that they ran the city, getting protection money from local businessmen, and buying drinking establishments in the city. They ruled through force and intimidation, even drawing the attention of the Mafia, who used them to launder money. The Krays were terrifying. And yet Reggie was smooth enough that he drew the attention of a Frances Shea (Emily Browning), who fell in love with him, despite knowing he was trouble. She made him promise to go straight—be a businessman and not a gangster. Reggie would keep those promises…for a few days. In one of the film’s mistakes, Frances narrates “Legend,” giving it something of an identity crisis from the beginning. She’s not a detailed enough character to be our eyes in this world—she really has no defining characteristic other than her beauty until she starts popping pills in the second act—and so it’s particularly odd that she was made the storyteller. Imagine “GoodFellas” narrated by Lorraine Bracco. It would be a very different film.
Even worse than that decision is the fact that Helgeland has just bitten off more than any screenwriter could chew in his scope of story. This is a mini-series of narrative. I think focusing on a specific incident or even period in the Krays life would have worked, but Helgeland tries to arc the entire rise and fall. So characters who might make an impact—like Paul Bettany’s Charlie Richardson—pop up and disappear. Eccleston’s cop Nipper Read is set up as a key character, and then he’s gone for an hour. “Legend” needed to be an ensemble piece, anchored by Hardy’s dual work at the center. Instead, almost as if he too is fascinated by what this remarkable actor is doing, Helgeland allows Hardy to overshadow everything around him. We don’t care about anything else, and so “Legend” becomes a great performance surrounded by a vacuum.
There’s a great performance at the center of “Black Mass” too, but Scott Cooper understands the importance of ensemble and how great supporting turns can make the centerpiece look even more impressive. “Black Mass” is one of those old-fashioned ensemble movies, filled out with recognizable faces, all doing solid work even in small parts. Look, there’s Peter Sarsgaard. There’s Rory Cochrane. There’s W. Earl Brown and Julianne Nicholson. All great. The movie belongs to Johnny Depp, but the versatile actor ups his game because of the people around him, and his director’s trust in his actors. Scott Cooper has made a gangster film that’s about faces—piercing eyes, furrowed brows, bloodied teeth, pursed lips—more than gunfire. And it’s remarkably entertaining for that reason—we are drawn into the people it captures, and care about what they’re doing.
“Black Mass” is the story of the downfall of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp) and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). The two grew up together on the South Side of Boston. The former became the leader of the Irish mob; the latter became a hotshot at the FBI. One day, Connolly has a brainstorm—use Bulger as an informant. Of course, no mobster takes well to the idea of being a rat, but Connolly pitches it as a mutually beneficial arrangement. Connolly basically gives Bulger the keys to the kingdom. Whitey gives some information every now and then (and Connolly fakes more), and the FBI looks the other way. Connolly’s boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) can’t figure out why they’re not really stopping crime in South Boston, and Whitey rises to greater power.
Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s script is deftly structured as a series of interrogations with Bulger’s key men, including Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons). We watch Bulger get more brazen and sociopathic, especially after two key deaths in his family leave him with nothing to care about. Editor David Rosenbloom expertly cuts together different time periods, voices, settings to make a cohesive whole. There are dozens of speaking roles in “Black Mass” but it never feels overwhelmed by its plot because Cooper is a director who loves actors. He clearly likes the scenes of dialogue between Depp and Edgerton as much, if not more, than the outbursts of violence And the excellent cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“Warrior,” “The Grey”) hones in on these expressive faces.
Within this confident framework, Depp does his deepest work in a very long time. He takes on Bulger after he’s already becoming very powerful, so this is not a Henry Hill story of wide-eyed innocence to maniac. And he knows that Bulger was always a bit of a dangerous sociopath, but he recognizes that this chapter of his life is where he allowed his dark side to reveal itself, especially after he was given the freedom to basically be lawless. Bulger was the kind of man who would shake your hand and look you in the eyes as one of his cronies was about to shoot you in the back of the head. That’s a special kind of crazy, but Depp doesn’t overplay it. He doesn’t turn Whitey into the mustache-twirling villain he could have been. And he’s matched by great turns from Edgerton, Cochrane, Sarsgaard, Stoll, Brown and Nicholson (although the female parts are a bit underwritten overall). “Black Mass” is confident, robust entertainment. It lacks the kind of thematic depth to make it a classic of its genre. It fades more quickly than the absolute best. But it’s certainly the more legendary of the two gangster movies at TIFF this year.