Having just got back from watching Public Enemies I can happily say that it’s the best Johnny Depp film for about eight years. Sadly, this isn’t saying much anymore. There once was a time when I regarded Johnny Depp as one of the finest and most versatile actors around, every film he appeared in – whether good or bad – was at least worth watching for his performance alone, but, surprisingly, he seemed to have a keen eye for a great script and a smart director, so there wasn’t much chaff to sort through.
He was also one of the most under-appreciated actors around, consistently great but always operating under the radar of Hollywood super stardom, though he had appeared in a number of cult classics pre-2000. However, as was inevitable for a man of his talent, Hollywood finally took notice and Gore Verbinski (director of the brilliant kid’s flick Mousehunt) cast him in his Jerry Bruckheimer produced Disney theme park ride inspired adventure film – and hideous Monkey Island rip-off – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Nobody knew that this film would become a humongous box office smash, pirate movies have never fared well in the charts and Depp was unproven and playing an eccentric role. His co-stars Orlando ‘Blandy’ Bloom and Keira ‘Blandy’ Knightley were not exactly big names, one was an elf, the other a waif. And despite being an Oscar winner and formidable character actor not many people rush out in their millions to see the latest Geoffrey Rush picture. Nevertheless, POTC:COTBP (as it’s known) was a massive success and prompted the relatively hasty task of franchising.
Between this and its sequel came the last burp of Depp’s indie-flavoured output, and it was messy at best. Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico (as I’ve previously blogged) is a shambolic affair, unfocused and choppy, never ammounting to the sum of its parts; Secret Window is a Stephen King adaptation not directed by Frank Darabont and thusly it’s shit; Finding Neverland won Oscars but is – in my opinion – a little too rose-tinted and whimsical in its story-telling and The Libertine is Depp channeling Withnail in a sometimes amusingly raunchy but ultimately indulgent romp.
Before finally re-donning the tresses and quaffing the rum, Depp re-imagined (the P.C. term for remake) Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with long-time collaborater Tim Burton. Unfortunately they mangled Dahl’s wonderful text (and even botched up just remaking the great 1971 version) into a hideous day-glo, plasticy nightmare of vomitous CGI and gratingly OTT performances. The film was a huge success.
More huge successes followed in the shape of both Pirates sequels, which somehow managed to push Depp’s Jack Sparrow into the background of a horribly convoluted plot that saw everyone come back from the dead at least twice and tried to convince us that Keria Knightly could become ‘King of the Pirates’, or something. Then there’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, another re-teaming of Depp and Burton, that took as its inspiration the awful musical of the same name but decided to leave out its best musical motifs in favour of Burton doing a pale imitation of the hammer horror style he perfected in Sleepy Hollow, in fact, the entire film felt like a Tim Burton fan-made tribute and was probably marketed entirely at the people who wear nothing but Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise and don’t realise that Tim Burton actually didn’t direct that film (much like the makers of Trivial Pursuit).
In fact the only truly worthwhile contribution Depp had made to cinema during all this salty nonsense was his appearance in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s documentary Lost in La Mancha, which told the tale of the tragic un-making of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. A film that Gilliam may be about to get back on track, but unfortunately due to commitments with The Lone Ranger and the mooted Pirates of the Caribbean 4 Depp may not be able to reprise his role. Now, I don’t begrudge Depp any of his financial success with these insipid movies, but it’s a shame that it prevents him from working on a truly interesting project (from an audience member’s perspective). Fortunately – though tragically as well – Depp did get to work with Gilliam on his upcoming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but this was in the wake of Heath Ledger’s death mid-way through filming.
Public Enemies, whilst a good film, seems to merely showcase Depp’s departure from his unique, character actor days of yore, with the film feeling more like Christian Bale chasing Johnny Depp than Merlvin Purvis chasing John Dillinger. So, the future for Mr. Depp may be blighted by yet more blockbuster shenanigans, the one diamond in his upcoming slate (outside of Gilliam) seems to be his return to the work of Hunter S. Thompson with Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary. There’s also Tim Burton’s upcoming adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, but that could go either way.
© BRWC 2010.
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