The question mark is about his career. His personal life is, well, all over the tabloids. That’s not my focus here.
Johnny Depp the actor was hotter than hot: big salaries and top of the list projects. Then his career sprung a leak and it now resembles the Titanic. Somewhere around the time of the third Pirates of the Caribbean film or Sweeney Todd, Depp’s career arc changed direction. He didn’t stop making films, he just started making more poor ones than good ones. Plus, his personal issues have spilled over into his career.
Johnny Depp’s career really took off after 21 Jump Street. Two big roles in 1990, Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands, moved Depp from bit parts to film leads. The movie gods blessed him with films that highlighted his brooding, dark looks and quirky charm. He had a rebellious spirit and lived life on his own terms. He could play odd characters, but still maintain a sweetness that bridged the adult and family audiences.
With the five Pirates of the Caribbean films alone, he was a wealthy man, and maybe that influenced his sense direction. I’m speculating. He was also part of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise, until recently, when he and the studio parted ways.
I like Johnny Depp as an actor, I don’t quite “get” some of his roles, but he has a talent for playing oddball, quirky, slightly dense characters. Depp is somewhat like Jim Carrey, a million personas, but rarely does he play a straight, genuine person. Even when he is not hiding behind animation or a wig, you still get a thick shell of a character. It’s rather sad that in his 50s, Depp’s career seems in freefall. A career can withstand a few bombs and misfires, but not a bunch of them, coupled with a domestic abuse label.
I have seen most of his films since 2005, they are quite a diverse collection.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) The second film in the series. It was not bad, but too long. Depp’s Jack Sparrow character was spot-on. Despite mixed reviews it grosses over $1B.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) Filmed in the same film shoot as Dead Man’s Chest, it might have been released too close to the previous film. This was the most expensive film ever made (at the time) and grossing just south of $1B. Large spectacle, characters you know, but confusing and drawn-out. More is not necessarily better. They were beginning to really milk the franchise.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) Although not my cup of tea, the film production of the successful play was well-received and recognized with many awards. Depp is gruesomely effective as directed by Tim Burton. A good choice by Depp.
Public Enemies (2009) Violent of course, with Michael Mann, that’s a given. Although the film turned a profit and received more favorable than negative reviews, there is something odd about this film. While it looked good, it failed to present how gangsters were made and why they were folk heroes. Depp is John Dillinger, and he’s presented as a romantic and honorable guy, so long as you aren’t a bank or a lawman. At first, I wondered if Depp was the right choice for this role – he was. Dillinger was a folk hero, but it was never really explained why. The characters looked authentic, but they were made of cardboard. Mann’s direction got in the way of itself. Depp’s Dillinger was a bit too stylish, but he did an admirable job in the role. Not every crime film can attain the influence and impact of The Godfather, simply by being expensive and violent.
Alice in Wonderland (2010) A very expensive film to make, but grossed over $1B worldwide. Depp plays the Mad Hatter, a strange and eccentric character, which Depp sought to humanize to add depth to the role, which constantly changes moods. Another successful partnership with director Tim Burton. Depp was nominated for numerous awards.
The Tourist (2010) Depp teamed with Angelina Jolie, in a film that had a lot of promise. Depp plays the dope who is out of his league, hired to portray the husband of Jolie’s character, who is pursued by the police. This film should have been better than it was. I didn’t believe Depp and Jolie were a good pairing and Depp hardly played a romantic lead. The film turned a profit, but the reviews were generally negative.
Rango (2011) An animated film, and one I like. The writer and director both worked on several of Depp’s films. Depp voices the role of Rango, a chameleon who winds up in desert town called Dirt where the pastime is looking for water. The film made money and received nice reviews, and even won an Academy Award. Depp’s droll voice work is superb.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) The fourth in the series and costing over $400M to make. The film grossed over $1B, but reviews were mixed and often unkind. Depp’s performance was okay, but with the mishmash of a story, Captain Jack Sparrow was a bit threadbare.
The Rum Diary (2011) Depp loves Hunter S. Thompson who penned this novel. Depp produced and plays Thompson’s alter ego, a journalist in the film who must decide whether to take the money or take his career in his hand and attack an influential real estate developer’s shady scheme. Reviews were mixed, the film lost money, and this project didn’t help Depp’s career. He is playing a Thompson-like character, yet he is the most sane thing in the film. I liked the film, and Depp’s performance, but the film needed to be either more dramatic or funnier.
Dark Shadows (2012) Another misfire. The concept is fine. The script and execution are below average. Depp was okay, but the film’s story and kitsch went nowhere. The film underperformed at the box office and received generally poor ratings. A rare whiff for Tim Burton.
The Lone Ranger (2013) Perhaps the nadir of Depp’s career. How do you screw up this concept? Depp as Tonto is insulting. The character appears over medicated and simply weird. If there is one laugh in the film, I slept through it. It is one thing to lampoon a traditional character, but make it smart, witty and respectful. Maybe the longest two hours of my life.
Lucky Them (2013) Depp has a small part as a long lost musician being sought by a woman that had a relationship with her. There’s not much to comment on, it is a pleasant little film.
Transcendence (2014) Big concept, a science fiction thriller about artificial intelligence potentially infecting the world. Depp plays a famous scientist who uploads his consciousness to a computer after an assassination attempt. The story might have some thread of scientific possibility, but it goes far beyond that into silliness. Depp is okay in the part, he can portray characters with an air of personal detachment, yet absorbed in something else. The film lost a lot of money and not a resume builder.
Into the Woods (2014) A film adaptation of the Sondheim Broadway musical. Depp had a small role, the Big, Bad Wolf, in a large cast. Depp was fine in a supporting role in a prestigious film.
Black Mass (2015) Depp played mobster Whitey Bulger. Depp turned in a very good performance and the reviews confirmed it. The film underperformed at the box office but probably earned it’s money back. This was not one of Depp’s many fantasy, cartoon roles, rather an adult role where his focus was on believability and character subtext.
Mortdecai (2015) More of the Dark Shadows problem. Depp is not terrible, but the film is not interesting and even worse, labors to be funny. Depp’s character is odd and does not generate much audience appeal. Jack Lemmon played this type character with delicious humor. The film was panned by reviewers, but made up for it by being a massive financial bomb.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) Depp was recruited to join this series in this featured, but essential role. His reviews were good and the films made a gazillion dollars. I cannot blame him for taking the role, although featured roles are usually taken at the beginning or end of career, not during the major starring years. Just my opinion.
Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) A sequel to Alice in Wonderland, this film proved less successful and nominated for various bad film of the year awards. Depp’s performance was not bad, it just felt like he was spinning his wheels and not making any impact. Would it have been better with Tim Burton directing? We will never know.
Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (2016) A made for television film where Depp plays Trump. Depp earned praise for his role in the parody. Some of Depp’s best performances are covered by heavy makeup, wigs and odd voices.
Yoga Hosers (2016) More of a personal project for Depp whose daughter has a leading role. Depp takes a supporting role in this odd film
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) The fifth in the series and it felt tired and labored. Yes, it had some goofy stuff, but did this really need to be made?
Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Depp played Ratchett, the role Richard Widmark played in the 1974 version. Ratchett is murdered on the train and the mystery is who killed him. Depp was in good company in an all-star cast. The film earned a lot of money, the performances were solid, but it was not as good as the Sidney Lumet 1974 film.
City of Lies (2018) A film that sat on the shelf until 2021. A reporter looks into the 20 year mysteries of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Depp plays an LAPD detective trying to unravel the mysteries, but runs up against his own department’s lack of cooperation. The film has a convoluted structure and it’s up to the viewer to stay involved. Depp is quite good, his character is free from excess and shows the doggedness and frustration of the real-life character. The delay in the film’s release is apparently the result of a lawsuit against Depp by a member of the film crew.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) Word of Depp’s domestic issues surfaced and caused some blowback, but the producers kept Depp onboard. The film was very successful, but less so from the first one. Depp, under some pressure, announced he would not be in the next sequel.
The Professor (2018) Depp as a tenured college professor, who is dying of cancer, while his wife is having an affair with the head of the college. A dramedy that does not work on either end. The film tries mightily to embrace the looming death in a meaningful, philosophical way, but it does not ring true. Depp plays the professor as becoming more eccentric, though with more mental clarity in his declining days. Too much contrived melodrama.
Sherlock Gnomes (2018) A computer animated film. A sequel to a successful film. Depp is the voice of the title character. This film apparently paled in comparison to the first film, earning poor reviews and equally poor box office. Not Depp’s fault, but it appears on his debit sheet.
Waiting for the Barbarians (2019) Depp plays a colonel sent to the frontier to interrogate prisoners. He uses extreme and cruel methods. Depp’s character constantly wears odd looking sunglasses as his main acting method. A lot of care was taken with this film, which few people saw. Depp’s character is quite evil, but not uncommon for a colonial military leader out to contain the natives.
Minamata (2020) Depp stars and produced this true account of American photographer Eugene Smith who is convinced to do a story on the industrial poisoning of Japanese villagers. The film earned good reviews and his performance was praised, but it was a film that not many people saw.