Why You Should Be Worried About Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger

Enough of your issues with Batfleck already—here's the bit of casting news you should really be worried about.

Johnny Depp Whitey Bulger

Johnny Depp image via GIFAKE on Flickr

Ben Affleck ignited the fire all over again when his Q&A with Playboy made the rounds a few weeks ago. Batman will be “redefined,” Affleck said. He will be “older” and “wiser.” Yes, Ben Affleck confirmed that his portrayal of Batman will, in fact, be different than Christian Bale’s portrayal of Batman. That shouldn’t be a shocker, but let’s all acknowledge that “Ben Affleck will be a terrible Batman” was a weak and tired argument from the get-go.

Instead of continuing to denounce Batfleck, I propose that movie enthusiasts turn their attention to some other recent casting news that hits a little closer to home: Deadline confirmed last week that Johnny Depp will play Whitey Bulger in a film called Black Mass, one of many upcoming bio-pics about the Boston crime boss. Depp, who initially dropped out of the project due to a salary dispute, has officially signed back on again, presumably because his paycheck was upped over the initial ballpark of $20 million.

This is the real casting news you should be worried about, and mostly because Depp is not a convincing criminal. Let’s reminisce on the time when he played another famous American gangster—John Dillinger—in 2009’s Public Enemies. In many cases, the beauty behind a criminal biopic is to somehow make the audience feel empathetic or connected to the criminal despite their nature. As Dillinger, Depp just didn’t sell it. He told Dillinger’s story as another A-list actor looking pretty while holding a handgun. At the time, film critic Mike McCahill, of The Telegraph, put the blame on both Depp and the director, claiming “[Michael Mann] tests Depp less than he did Will Smith in Ali or Tom Cruise in Collateral, asking only that his star be suave and carry a Tom gun correctly.”

McCahill also touched on the fact that Depp’s character lacks “any kind of emotional or physical weight.” Ouch, but it’s true. Depp is a character actor: big budget, a new voice, and a new type of face makeup, all paired with some CGI. He ultimately makes himself seem so unrecognizable that we just always assume it’s Johnny Depp being Johnny Depp (see: Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Lone Ranger, Pirates of the Caribbean, Alice in Wonderland, etc).

When he’s not hiding under a weird hat, Depp struggles to carry the lead role. When Leo DiCaprio or Al Pacino is by his side, Depp is better at reacting to the superior actor than taking the reigns as the lead he signed up for. This spells danger for his portrayal of Whitey because Whitey is the top dog, the ultimate crime boss. As Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in The Departed, a role based loosely on Bulger, put it, “The only one that can do what I do—is me.” Which brings us to the casting of Tom Hardy as Black Mass’s supporting role of John Connolly, the racketeering FBI agent. Hardy has proven to be a solid villain in The Dark Knight Rises, and he’s very familiar with the action-thriller genre, so he’s a fair choice as Connolly. But can Hardy be a dominant running-back when the QB doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing? I’m not convinced.

We’re not going to delve into the whole other issue of Depp’s ability to convey a decent Boston accent—think of his fairly conflicted regular speaking voice plus his failed attempt as a Weymouth native in 2001’s Blow—but I digress. Black Mass is a premature project at most, but Depp is about to give us a run for our money. Literally.