The Evolution of Johnny Depp

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Is that guy mincing about on screen, dressed as a pirate and pretending to be drunk in a Disney film really the guy out of Jim Jarmusch's existential head scratching Western Dead Man?

The old Johnny Depp might have played Captain Jack Sparrow once simply because he was such a great character a similarly great actor could make his own in a way that was slightly subversive. He indeed did – who else would base a character in a kids' film on Keith Richards?

But Jack came back, and came back again, and again, and in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides he looks increasingly like any other former talent seeming less interested each time, in a franchise increasingly losing credibility for endlessly cashing in on itself. We expect to see Owen Wilson doing show-up-and-get-your-cheque jobs that are more about moving licensing tie-ins than creating art, not Johnny Depp.

He used to be a rebel – after his big break as Nancy's (Heather Langenkamp) ill-fated boyfriend Glen in A Nightmare on Elm Street, he was never quite comfortable with his role as pretty cop Tom Hanson in TV's 21 Jump Street. Even while he was still on the show Depp went on record saying he didn't like the idea of police officers infiltrating schools where kids were trying to get an education.

He leaped at the first chance he got to deconstruct and poke fun at his heart-throb image in John Waters' Cry-Baby opposite former porn actress Traci Lords. Soon after, he met the man who would give him a career of oddball roles to slap his Hollywood pin-up mould silly – or in the case of his first Tim Burton role, slice and chop it with his scissorhands.

But as well as muse for Burton's oddball gothic visions (which have long since turned tedious) Depp took serious roles that were always more deep and dramatic than full of action and thrills – even those in the thriller genre.

His characters always had an edge, whether it was the mob-infiltrating cop who almost forgets what side he's on in Donnie Brasco or the suave seducer who turns out to be a seriously mentally ill young man in Don Juan De Marco.

Even when he played it straight he surrounded himself in similar talent in films that pushed the envelope. No matter what Leo DiCaprio achieves for Chris Nolan or Martin Scorsese, there's a very strong case his role as Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape is still his best work.

In fact when you look back over Depp's CV he's only done one vanilla-flavoured actioner, John Badham's Nick of Time. Even in Michael Mann's Public Enemies Depp's John Dillinger had a sardonic swagger no other 'pretty' male actor could manage – maybe not even Christian Bale at his best. And that was for a director who specialises in machismo-flexing, violent and determined men, not Depp's traditional territory

But through it all he was the effortless epitome of cool, every film he did anti-establishment almost by osmosis. They weren't angry anti-establishment like George Clooney's work in Good Night, and Good Luck or Syriana, but they were a universe away from Disney blockbusters, and Depp worked with directors like Terry Gilliam who'd never be welcome in that deep-pocketed but creatively stifling world. Even aside from the kookiness of The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus and the almost-was Don Quixote film, Depp's work with the smartest Python gave us his most off the wall role in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

But something happened when Johnny and his sultry French wife Vanessa Paradis had kids. His worldview seems to have shifted inwards towards what his kids like. That's natural enough for a parent, even admirable, but the problem is he wants to share it with the rest of us. We saw the first kid-love in his portrayal of Peter Pan playwright J M Barrie in Finding Neverland. It was another good part, but you could see Depp was looking at the world through the eyes of children.

You could of course argue even that was a natural progression – he'd already played so many roles depicting buffoonish man-boys, innocents in the worlds of adults like Ichabod Crane, Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter who were perfect fodder for Burton's films.

But he lost the mojo that had bought us grown up, lost and dark characters like Inspector Abberline (From Hell), drug dealer George Jung (Blow) and impoverished, desperate Native American Raphael (The Brave). While promoting Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Depp said it was hardly a stretch for him because he played pirates with his kids already – here was a chance to do it for real. But here's the thing – we knew it wouldn't be a stretch. An actor of Depp's calibre was always going to find a great voice, attitude and way of walking for a character like Jack Sparrow and it fits him like a glove. Maybe too well...

Today he's just another conservative who dresses weird, as studio-friendly as Michael Bay or Pixar. He still has long hair and wears a fedora, but he's also done the inevitable computer-animated kids film (Rango).

There might still have been a chance for him outside his new family-friendly canon, but the single time in recent years he's played an adult in a movie for adults (The Tourist), audiences apathetically dribbled into theatres in single digits. The danger now is that he might give up the grown-up world altogether, settle back into his Captain's chair with Jerry Bruckheimer on speed dial and be done with it. It's a safe bet, after all, that Disney's Lone Ranger won't have former porn actresses or hotel rooms awash with drugs...

There's only one thing Depp can do now to convince us he's still good at picking films and bringing characters off the page with zest and zeal. Tarantino's casting Django Unchained right now, and Depp's initially said he wouldn't be interested in playing Captain Jack for a little while longer this time. So now's the time to put these two titanic talents together and show all the pirate movies, animated anthropomorphic animals and even Tim Burton the true definition of Cool.

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