What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Six) — British Period Two-Point-O

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003)

Batten Down the Hatches, Boys!

When last we left the eclectic Mr. Depp, he was caught up in cocaine smuggling in the 2001 movie Blow. Sent to Otisville Federal Correctional Institute for a goodly number of years, his character — a potbellied, older-but-wiser George Jung — experiences a vision of his grown up, high-cheek-boned daughter Kristina Sunshine (Jaime King) paying a visit to him in prison.

As the pair hug each other tight, George has a flashback in which police carry his little girl (Emma Roberts) from their home after he’s been busted for possession of illegal drugs. In another, his estranged spouse Mirtha (Penélope Cruz) sits down to speak with George via the prison’s phone system. But she purposely drops the phone’s receiver on him, as does Kristina Sunshine when it’s her turn to talk to daddy.

In the concluding episode, George walks hand-in-hand with Kristina, who fades away to nothingness as the prison guard tells him it’s time to pack it in. Turns out she was nothing but a dream. And the moral of the story? “Ain’t no ‘Sunshine’ when she’s gone” (my apologies to Bill Withers), with or without the darkness.

Close family relationships have been at the center of Depp’s cinematic output from the start. The most prominent of which (Edward Scissorhands, Cry-Baby, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and The Brave) have emphasized the ties that bind an individual to one’s brood. However difficult it may be to break those ties, the family unit stays intact. It remains the focal point in such crime-based dramas as Donnie Brasco and Nick of Time — even Sleepy Hollow — or the pseudo-sci-fi incongruities of The Astronaut’s Wife.

Family, of an entirely different sort, would take over the main section of Johnny’s next projects. As a matter of fact, the very term “family” and what it meant to be a contributing member of one underwent a drastic re-modification.

Perhaps reflecting the changing attitudes of American society as a whole and the notion of what comprises the so-called “modern family unit,” Depp’s personal relationships with his own children, and to children in general, had a profound influence on how he would approach such box-office bonanzas as Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But before he reached that critically-acclaimed stage, Depp agreed to don dreadlocks and braids, to cap his teeth with fake gold trimming, and to assume the bawdy carriage and boozy aspect of a stoned-out rock ‘n’ roller, in what would become his most lucrative film venture yet.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is shipwrecked on a deserted Caribbean islet with Elizabeth (Keira Knightley)

The first picture in the (gulp) “ongoing” series, the nautically predisposed Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, set the unwavering course, so to speak, for Hollywood’s obsession with franchises. It was followed three years later by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) — the best of the bunch — and the subsequent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).

As far as we can measure, this money-generating mania (what in motion-picture parlance is referred to as a “cash cow”) began, more or less, with the runaway successes of the Wakowski siblings’ cyberpunk series The Matrix (starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishbourne) and Peter Jackson’s blockbuster The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, trailed quickly by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man action epics (with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst), as well as the earlier The Fast and the Furious (the team of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Michelle Rodriguez).

What made the faux saltiness of the Pirates of the Caribbean brand of adventure stories — an essential chapter in Johnny’s British-period outings — so entertaining to both critics and public alike? That’s hard to say.

It had been some time since a pirate picture would translate into profits for penny-pinching movie studios. Their heyday had come and gone in the late 1940s and ‘50s (the best example being Burt Lancaster’s The Crimson Pirate), with a fitful smattering of efforts thereafter that dotted the cinematic seascape, to include such titles as Swashbuckler (1976), The Pirate Movie (1982), The Pirates of Penzance (1983), Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986), Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995), Brian Henson’s Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Disney’s animated Treasure Planet (2002).

After having taken a bath at the box office with the gimmicky Treasure Planet, a half-hearted science-fiction take at a swashbuckler resurgence, industry mavens expressed alarm that the Disney Studios, in conjunction with megabuck producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, Remember the Titans, Pearl Harbor), would revisit the time-worn story line — in this instance, basing a script (by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) on Disney’s eponymously titled theme-park ride. Tackling another such high-sea saga was a risky venture in their view (with or without an eye patch). Ah, but money speaks louder than words.

Action sequences galore (under the purposeful direction of Gore Verbinski), lush location shooting on the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean (where else?), along with a full-blown symphonic film score by Hans Zimmer (with borrowings from his previous hit, Gladiator), and a plethora of mindboggling stunts and special FX, dominated this initial entry.

Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, l.) on deck with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, r.)

And the plot? I knew you’d ask me that question! Let’s say the story is so hopelessly complicated, so overblown, and so lumbering and elephantine that it took two subsequent sequels to untangle and resolve — and not to everyone’s gratification.

The principal “character” (and we use that term loosely) is that of Captain Jack Sparrow, a slightly effete, slightly tipsy, and incessantly scheming buccaneer with a penchant for pretentious dialogue and dark eyeliner. He also has a one-track-minded obsession with women and rum. Despite his unsavory nature, Sparrow is a delightfully daffy personification: quick-witted and beguiling, he can outsmart, out-think and out-maneuver any number of His Majesty’s Royal Guardsmen, not to mention the entire British Fleet. What Sparrow has going for him is his ability not to be taken seriously.

As the roguish Jack, Depp drew upon his earlier enactment of Hunter S. Thompson, the whacky gonzo journalist-turned-writer we first encountered in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To that performance, he added the slurred speech patterns of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who makes a cameo appearance as Sparrow’s papa, the Keeper of the Pirate Codex, in 2007’s At World’s End.

Johnny’s part, as originally conceived, was in the upstanding “action hero” mold. Always looking to bring a sense of novelty to whatever he did, Depp decided to embellish the character with his own tongue-in-cheek twist. Michael Eisner, who headed Disney at the time, took one look at the rushes and was not amused. “He’s ruining the film!” Eisner was quoted as saying. Johnny was unperturbed by the comment. His response was reported to be: “You either trust me or give me the boot” (pun intended). Eisner decided that too much had been invested in the production to make any changes at that point.

As one producer once came to a similar conclusion concerning the late actor-producer-financier Robert Evans’ own modest beginnings in movieland: “The kid stays in the picture.”

Instead of walking the plank, Depp took his character’s license to offend by the horns and allowed himself a bit of leeway: He turned the fey Captain Sparrow into a one-man side-show. The main event, then, took shape in the evolving (and evermore contrived) relationships between Elizabeth Swan, Will Turner, and James Norrington, with Jack occupying the inner-and-outer fringes of comic relief. He would later take up this same methodology for his original, deadpan take as Tonto in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013).

The large supporting cast highlighted the diversity inherent in practically all of Depp’s features, with the Pirates series being no exception. Among the talents deployed were those of Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as the ghostly Captain Barbosa, Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) as the highborn Elizabeth Swann, Orlando Bloom (Legolas in The Lord of the Rings) as love-smitten swordsmith Will Turner, Jack Davenport (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as the snooty Lt. Norrington, Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) as Governor Swann, Kevin R. McNally as Mr. Gibbs, Lee Arenberg as the bald-pated Pintel, Mackenzie Crook as loose-eyed Ragetti, and Zoë Saldana (Uhura in the Star Trek reboots) as female pirate Anamaria.

Now, about that winding plot … It has something to do with Captain Jack’s attempts to take possession of his ship, The Black Pearl, from some mutinous rival privateers. Oh, and there’s also a mighty curse that needs to be broken. And a spectral crew to overcome. And a mind-of-its-own compass. And 882 pieces of eight, mate.

As I said: It’s complicated. And I’ll be damned if it’s not entertaining to boot (pun VERY intended!).

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Depp up to the bar in ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’

From a side-show attraction, Johnny fixed his ever-watchful gaze on a violent, nausea-inducing contemporary sagebrush saga by Tex-Mex writer, director, producer, cinematographer, musician, and editor Robert Rodriguez.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico, an obvious ode to Italian auteur Sergio Leone’s grandiloquent spaghetti Westerns, in particular The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), was part of a trilogy of films by the enterprising Mr. Rodriguez that began with the low-budget, self-made El Mariachi (1993) and the ensuing slicker but no less ferocious outlaw epic Desperado (1995), the former starring Carlos Gallardo as the titular gun-toting musician and the latter with Antonio Banderas in the name part.

Banderas returned to the role in this outlandish sequel (Desperado was distributed, in fact, by Columbia Pictures, as was Rodriguez’s earlier creation). In Once Upon a Time in Mexico, El Mariachi is charged by CIA Agent Sheldon Jeffrey Sands (played with typical self-reliance by Depp) with the killing of one of those corrupt Mexican generals one hears so much about. The general is played by Willem Dafoe. There’s also a revenge-themed angle to this setup that, for all intents and purposes, outdoes anything that came before.

Johnny Depp as CIA Agent Sands

Perhaps that’s the reason why the series faltered after Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Once upon a time in Depp’s movie career, he might just as easily have played the lead protagonist as he had the minor CIA sidekick. He could certainly fake a Mexican accent better than many native speakers could pronounce their own surnames (see his Don Juan DeMarco if you have any doubts). Still, Johnny’s fidgety nature preferred to let others have their moment in the hot desert sun, which is all to the good.

Our favorite sequences in this long, drawn-out shoot-em-up (which also stars Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Rubén Blades, and Enrique Iglesias) happen to be: 1) Depp’s “conversation” in a fancy Mexican bar/restaurant with ex-standup comic Cheech Marin as Belini, which ends rather badly for poor old Cheech and the waitress serving them both; and 2) the CIA agent’s violent shootout with hitmen that is so blatantly outrageous and so ridiculously over-the-top that one is forced to laugh the whole sequence off. It’s almost too cartoony to take seriously.

The Secret Window (2004)

Depp as Mort Rainey, with John Turturro as Shooter, in ‘The Secret Window’

Johnny’s subsequent brush with the “law,” The Secret Window from 2004, was a dreary, offbeat affair. Based on a Stephen King novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, it reminded one of a poor man’s Edgar Allan Poe psychological horror fantasy (“The Telltale Heart” would be what we had in mind), with some semi-biographical elements thrown in.

The basic premise involves an author, Mort Rainey (a stand-in for King, which is where the semi-biographical aspects come into play), trying to overcome his writer’s block by shacking up, all by his lonesome self, inside a log cabin in the woods (the movie was shot in parts of Quebec, Canada). Mort spends most of his time dressed in a bathrobe and lying around the couch while attempting to snap out of the doldrums.

One day, he’s visited by one of those tall and sullen strangers that seem to inhabit such woodland fright fests as these. The stranger’s name is John Shooter (a grim-faced John Turturro). He wears a big black hat (could he be the bad guy?), and he’s pissed off something fierce. Shooter accuses Mort of plagiarizing his murder-mystery novel. “You stole my story,” he declares, in a slow, portentous drawl meant to make Mort and the audiences’ skin crawl. That starts the plot a-rolling.

From there, we learn a little more about Mort as a person: that he really did “steal someone else’s story” a while back and published it as his own; that he wrote and published his own story two years before Shooter’s tale; that after confronting Shooter, the next night Mort’s dog is stabbed to death with a screwdriver. Yikes! Looks like this guy Shooter is (cough, cough) deadly serious about that plagiarism claim.

What’s an author with writer’s block to do? In Mort’s case, he reports the slaughter of his pet pooch to the local sheriff (Len Cariou). To prove that his story really did come first, Mort goes off to see his estranged wife Amy (Maria Bello) to retrieve a copy of the magazine where it was originally published. He also hires a former policeman turned private detective (Charles S. Dutton) to ferret out the situation with the lugubrious Mr. Shooter.

Mort (Johnny Depp) has a bout of cabin fever in ‘The Secret Window’

One thing leads to another and, as in all of King’s stories, the final “reveal” is both thought provoking and preposterous at one and the same time. The best parts of the picture are when Johnny is left alone, talking a blue streak to himself and sorting out in his mind (or what’s left of his sanity) as to what’s been going on. The ending, while not particularly shocking, is somewhat of a letdown but true, overall, to the story arc that’s been laid out beforehand (keep a close eye on the objects around Mr. Depp at the outset — they’ll come in handy towards the finish).

No spoilers here, folks. The best we have to say about this minor effort is the creepy music score by Philip Glass (The Hours) and Geoff Zanelli (which will remind viewers of Depp and Polanski’s The Ninth Gate), the steady directorial hand of veteran screenwriter David Koepp, and the fine location photography by Fred Murphy. All in all, a modest achievement for the always adventurous Johnny D.

(End of Part Six)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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