Black Mass, a down and dirty crime drama based on the exploits of Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, is thrilling for a number of reasons. Foremost among them, Johnny Depp isn't doing his Captain Jack Sparrow shtick - or any shtick at all.

In the wake of all those salty dog Keith Richards impersonations in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, after Depp's flop-o turn as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, and work in lamentable pictures like Mortdecai, the actor was beginning to look like he'd lost interest - at least in anything that might present a challenge, that wasn't one-joke, one-note.

As the South Boston racketeer who helped old ladies with their groceries and dumped corpses into the city's harbor, Depp is utterly transformed. The thinning hair, the icy stare, the horrific dentition, the dropped consonants - he's a pasty psychopath, a nightmare guy who can smile nice and pummel the people who cross him into bloody pulp.

Which is what he does, a lot, in director Scott Cooper's swaggering disco-era period piece.

Although not as roiling and resonant as Martin Scorsese's Beantown cops-and-crooks saga, The Departed (in which Jack Nicholson served up a wildly italicized, fictionalized version of Bulger), Cooper's movie - adapted from a book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill - deftly traces the rise of Bulger's so-called Winter Hill Gang. The mobster struck a deal with the FBI that essentially gave him license to run the competition, the Mafia, out of town. Aided and abetted by John Connolly, a fellow Southie kid who grew up to become a federal agent, and who is played with barrel-chested intent by Joel Edgerton, Bulger was pretty much let loose to wheel, deal, and whack, feeding the feds "intel" in exchange for letting him operate in South Boston, then all of Boston and beyond.

This is an unredeemingly dark tale. A story with Bulger foot soldiers turned government witnesses (the film is structured flashback style, with tape-recorded interrogations pointing the way). A story about bonds of brotherhood, filial and otherwise. A story where women don't figure much, except to bear children, bring food to the table, and wonder what the hell the men in their lives are doing. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey's brother, a bespoke-suited state senator, a power broker who doesn't need to break legs to achieve his goals. Kevin Bacon is FBI supervisor Charles McGuire, who wears his ties wide and whose eyes periodically go wide, too, in disbelief over what Bulger is getting away with. (Murder.)

Peter Sarsgaard plays Brian Halloran, a Bulger associate who has good reason to be wary, and 50 Shades of Grey's Dakota Johnson has a couple of unnerving scenes with Depp. She plays Lindsey Cyr, Bulger's mistress, the mother of his son. When the boy turns sick, their relationship gets very ugly, very fast.

If Black Mass finds its audience (an audience that likes its gangland yarns served meat-and-potatoes style), one scene is sure to be remembered, and much discussed. In fact, it's a meat and potatoes scene: a dinner in which Bulger asks his host, an FBI Boston bureau boss, what the steak has been marinated in. "It's a family secret," David Harbour's John Morris responds, but then Bulger works the recipe out of him anyway. Bulger's voice turns cold, accusatory: "You spill the secret family recipe today, maybe you spill about me tomorrow. Is that something maybe that's a possibility?"

It's one of the most uncomfortable dining experiences anybody's ever going to have. And it's brilliant.

Black Mass *** (Out of four stars)


Directed by Scott Cooper. With Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes).

Playing at: area theaters.EndText