Johnny Depp has come a long way since his 21 Jump Street days. If I remember correctly, the programme’s premise was rather flimsy: a handful of recently enlisted police were singled out for undercover operations. The chief criteria for recruitment to the secret taskforce seemed to be youth. The recruits had to be able to pass as high school students to infiltrate pubescent drug rings. The team that was formed was a veritable United Nations of law enforcement. Aside from Johnny Depp, there was an African American woman, whose name I can’t recall, and Dustin Ngyuen. They were lead by an African American man, who later played Fox Mulder’s government contact in The X-Files. There must have been someone else; four people does not a taskforce make. They conducted their work from a secret location, the impression of which remains in my memory as a brick warehouse, with high ceilings, more akin to a nightclub than the base of exceptional detectives. The operation was always under threat of being closed down at the provocation of the renegade behaviour of Depp’s character and the political whim of whoever controlled the budget.
Of course, like everybody else, I had a crush on Johnny Depp, but I also remember watching him and having this revelation that he could also act. The particular moment in which I had this epiphany was in the episode where his character’s girlfriend was shot and killed in a convenience store hold up. In the series, Depp’s character had been contemplating breaking up with his girlfriend out of sheer indifference to her. When the girlfriend was shot, Depp’s character was at the back of the shop, getting milk from the fridge. He saw the gunman and just froze. The arc of the episode involved Depp’s character torturing himself with what he could have done in the seven seconds between his sighting of the gunman and the shot that ended his girlfriend’s life. One of the things he discovered was that it was possible to undress and dress again, including tying his shoelaces. Depp’s character practised this feat over and over again, reducing the time on each occasion. Add to this obsessive behaviour the guilt of not loving his girlfriend... well, it made for quite intense television.
Twenty years later, I still appreciate Depp on both levels. I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last weekend and Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka as an eccentric entrepreneur with a palpable dislike of children is riveting. Now, whoever designed Wonka’s teeth deserves much kudos; they contribute so much to the character, and Depp uses them to great effect. Aside from that perfect overbite (I couldn’t help but think of Tom Cruise), there are a couple of other moments worth mentioning: when Willy Wonka answers one of the children’s offer to supply him with their names, he raises his eyebrows and counters, ‘I can’t think what difference it would make’; and the moment when Veruca Salt disappears down the bad nut disposal chute and Wonka encourages her father to rescue her, the way Depp opens the gate is replete with meaning. (I loved the squirrels, too.)
So, we know that Johnny Depp has been the most successful graduate of the 21 Jump Street alma mater, and I’ve mentioned that the agents’ boss resurfaced on The X-Files every time Mulder put a masking tape X in his window, but what of the others?
Today I saw Little Fish. I was sitting there looking at the character of Johnny Ngyuen, thinking he looked familiar. I thought he looked like the Vietnamese guy from 21 Jump Street, but dismissed the idea; what would he be doing in an Australian film? I must have seen him on some Aussie soap. On the way out of the cinema, I picked up a brochure for the film. I often like to read the publicity after I’ve seen a film to see if it matches my impression of it. I don’t like to read all that five star hyperbole before going in because you’re just set up to be disappointed. As well, I find it fascinating to see, in the publicity brochures, what films they list in brackets behind the actors’ names as instances of their noteworthy performances. In this instance the question is begged, why is Hugo Weaving’s filmography reduced to The Matrix? It’s an Australian brochure promoting an Australian film to an Australian audience; we know his work outside of offshore Hollywood projects (!); at least mention Proof. Anyway, reading through the brochure, I discovered that my memory of 21 Jump Street was not limited to Johnny Depp; the Johnny in Little Fish was played by Dustin Ngyuen of that long ago television series. I’m sure he’s been in much better things in the intervening years than the brochure cared to divulge, especially if his appearance in Little Fish is any indication.
If you haven’t seen Little Fish yet, it’s important to know that there will be no Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ending. The brochure cites reviews of the film that describe it as ‘real’, ‘excruciatingly honest’ and ‘frighteningly accurate’. I’ve always hated the use of words like ‘real’ and ‘truth’, because they do nothing to prepare anyone for the experience of watching a film that doesn’t follow a classical Hollywood narrative structure. Whatever your conception of reality is, it is better to know that the film depicts the struggle of Tracy, played by Cate Blanchett, to get a loan so she can become a partner in the business where she is a manager. The trouble is she was a drug addict and has a credit history which involves fraudulent practices. Even though she has been clean for four years she is refused the loan by various financial institutions on the basis of her former life. The limits of Tracy’s prospects are developed in the cinematography; the depth of focus is shallow throughout, trapping the protagonist in a world which is defined entirely through her current relationships with people who are from her past. Dustin Ngyuen plays Johnny, Tracy’s former boyfriend, who disappeared to Canada over five years ago without bothering to say good-bye. His reappearance is both a complication, since he shared her drug addiction, and a pleasure, because she hasn’t exorcised him from her heart.