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Johnny Depp Movies That Flew Right Under Your Radar

Johnny Depp has entertained audiences for almost four decades, appearing in classic films such as "A Nightmare on Elm Street, "Edward Scissorhands," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "Alice in Wonderland," and, of course, Disney's blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

Strangely enough, despite the actor's acclaimed work throughout his early career, it wasn't until he took up the Jack Sparrow mantle that he became a true A-lister. While his role as the popular pirate scoundrel appropriately earned Depp plenty of accolades and media attention, the character also overshadowed many of the actor's performances in smaller films that were largely ignored or overlooked by general audiences.

We're talking about motion pictures such as "Benny and Joon," "Ed Wood," and "Dead Man," all of which display Depp's incredible range in decidedly more complex roles far removed from the likes of Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter. Indeed, film aficionados were long enamored by Johnny Depp years before he ventured into blockbuster territory and have pleaded for general audiences to rediscover the hidden gems from earlier in his career.

As such, we thought it would be fun to highlight the Johnny Depp movies that flew right under your radar. 

Benny and Joon (1993)

Johnny Depp's quirky humor is on full display in "Benny and Joon," a romantic comedy co-starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Aidan Quinn. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik ("National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation"), the film details a mentally ill young woman named Joon (Masterson) and her relationship with the eccentric Benny (Depp), a man who spends his days emulating the great Buster Keaton.

Critics were mostly kind to this relatively harmless comedy, with Entertainment Weekly awarding the picture a B and noting, "Inconsequential is it is, 'Benny and Joon' is that rare thing, a crazy-versus-sane movie that likes one kind as much as the other." Audiences were less than impressed and ignored the picture when it released in April of 1993, opposite the edgier "Indecent Proposal" and the family classic "The Sandlot."

That's too bad, because Depp turns in a genuinely fanciful performance as the soft-spoken Benny and clearly has a ball reenacting iconic scenes from Buster Keaton's filmography. "Benny and Joon" also unveiled the classic '90s rock ballad "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by the one-and-done band The Proclaimers, which has to count for something.

Ed Wood (1994)

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp go together like peanut butter and jelly. To date, the pair have worked on eight films dating all the way back to 1990's hit fantasy "Edward Scissorhands." Their second collaboration, "Ed Wood," didn't fare as well, earning just $5 million worldwide against an $18 million budget, despite an all-star cast featuring Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Landau (who won an Oscar for his portrayal of legendary actor Bela Lugosi), Patricia Arquette and Bill Murray.

Perhaps the film was simply too weird for audiences as it dove head first into the life of infamous director Ed Wood, who made a series of terrible movies throughout the 1950s — namely, "Glen or Glenda," "Plan 9 from Outer Space" and "Bride of the Monster" — that have since become cult favorites amongst cinephiles.

Depp portrays the enigmatic director as a naïve young man whose enthusiasm for all things moviemaking (and pink sweaters) results in some wickedly hysterical and often bizarre comedy. The heart and soul of the film revolves around Ed Wood's relationship with downtrodden Bela Lugosi, who longs to return to his former cinematic glory. Typically, Burton sympathizes with Wood's troupe, a kooky group of outsiders trying to make a living within the glorious world of Hollywood. 

Don Juan DeMarco (1994)

Notable for the popular Bryan Adams song, "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman," "Don Juan DeMarco" sees Johnny Depp assume the role of John Arnold DeMarco, who believes himself to be the great Spanish libertine Don Juan — often referred to as the world's greatest lover. This belief leads John into the office of Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando), a doctor who insists on exploring his "psychological delusions" and arriving at the truth. Eventually, John's story has a positive influence on those around him, including Jack, who rekindles his relationship with his wife Marilyn (Faye Dunaway). 

Most critics applauded the sensual romantic drama, praising Depp's performance, while others, such as Roger Ebert, felt the movie would have worked better without Brando's "petulant presence spoiling the fun." Audiences didn't exactly carry a love affair with "Don Juan," though the film eventually earned $69 million worldwide against a $25 million budget. As such, it remains one of the more peculiar early Depp roles, but also illustrates the chances the young actor was willing to take to hone his craft. 

Dead Man (1995)

Films don't get much stranger than "Dead Man," a curious 1995 black-and-white Western about William Blake (Johnny Depp), a young man who is mortally wounded before meeting a mysterious Native American called Nobody (Gary Farmer). The rather robust warrior believes Blake to be a reincarnation of the poet William Blake and decides to guide Blake on a spiritual journey before he succumbs to death. 

The Jim Jarmusch production cost $9 million to produce, only managed $1 million at the box office, and split critics with its morose and poetic style. Admirers, such as Salon's Greil Marcus, felt "Dead Man" was "the best movie of the dog days of the 20th century" and wrote a fascinating article that highlighted the film's obscure dark humor, Depp's performance and Neil Young's guitar-heavy soundtrack. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, awarded the picture one and a half stars and was mostly perplexed by the "strange, slow, unrewarding movie that provides us with more time to think about its meaning than with meaning." Ebert did single out Robby Muller's terrific cinematography and Farmer's performance for acclaim.

"Dead Man" certainly speaks to a specific breed of filmgoer, but it is also a fascinating spiritual odyssey that will either delight or perplex the viewer. And we mean that in a good way.

Nick of Time (1995)

As edge-of-your-seat thrillers go, you can't go wrong with "Nick of Time." Depp stars as Gene Watson, an atypical father whose life is quite literally turned upside down when the mysterious Mr. Smith (Christopher Walken) orders him to assassinate a politician in order to save his kidnapped daughter (Courtney Chase).

Featuring Charles S. Dutton in a supporting role, "Nick of Time" delivers plenty of suspense despite a relatively by-the-numbers script from Patrick Sheane Duncan. Depp is convincing as a desperate man who goes to great lengths to save his little girl, while Walken brings plenty of edge to an otherwise one-dimensional villain role. Director John Badham keeps the film moving at a quick pace, and at just 90 minutes it doesn't overstay its welcome.

Yet when "Nick of Time" was released on a crowded Thanksgiving weekend in 1995 alongside "GoldenEye," "Casino," "The American President" and "Toy Story," audiences elected to spend their money on other endeavors, resulting in a putrid $8 million gross against a $30 million budget.

Still, if you have the, er, time, "Nick of Time" is certainly worth a second look. The thriller won't blow you away, but delivers a fun night at the movies.

The Brave (1997)

By 1997, Johnny Depp was ascending the Hollywood ranks after appearing in critical hits like "Edward Scissorhands," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "Ed Wood," and "Donnie Brasco." While he had yet to truly break out as a bona fide superstar capable of $100 million blockbusters (mostly by design, as he had turned down roles in "Interview with the Vampire" and "Speed"), his name was bankable enough to convince studios to take a chance on smaller productions.

Case in point: the obscure drama "The Brave," which Depp directed and starred in — after the original director killed his wife, his daughter, and himself in 1993 – alongside "Don Juan DeMarco" costar Marlon Brando.

Chances are, you've never heard of this film, which makes sense considering Depp never released "The Brave" in theaters or on DVD following negative critical reaction as Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival. Indeed, many blasted Depp's direction and the film's snail-like pacing, with Variety calling it "a turgid and unbelievable neo-Western ... further proof that Hollywood stars who attempt to extend their range are apt to exceed it."

No matter. "The Brave," which chronicles one man's journey after he accepts $50,000 to star in a snuff film in order to secure a better future for his family, is worth checking out for Depp fans. It is indeed quite slow and rather bleak, but there are surprising touches of humanity baked into the narrative and good performances from the main cast.

Don't expect much, but you may walk away with a deeper appreciation of Depp's artistry.

The Ninth Gate (2000)

Johnny Depp teaming up with renowned director Roman Polanski should have guaranteed a home run success. But while "The Ninth Gate" is far from a disaster, it doesn't quite work as effectively as one expects given the talent involved.

Critics were harsh to the horror film, with The Guardian calling it "an exasperatingly boring film ... it is incredible that it is from the man who long ago brought us authentically frightening films in which evil really means something." Audiences mostly stayed away, resulting in a mediocre $18 million domestic haul, though it did manage to rake in $39 million abroad.

We won't go out on a limb and call "The Ninth Gate" more than what it is — a run-of-the-mill demon picture — but if one removes Polanski's name from the equation and views the film devoid of any "Rosemary's Baby" comparisons, there's enough thrills to warrant a look at the 1999 production.

In case you need more convincing, Depp plays a book dealer who happens upon a 17th-century tome titled "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows," that may or may not have been written by Satan himself. There are indeed a couple of interesting twists and plenty of demonic fun to be had with tempered expectations.

Chocolat (2000)

"Chocolat" didn't exactly fly under the radar. Critics adored the Lasse Hallström production, which garnered five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, while audiences swooned at the light-hearted tale to the sweet tune of $152 million worldwide.

However, the film appears on this list because, well, it's not often considered a Johnny Depp movie — which it isn't, of course — and remains far removed from the offbeat comedy-dramas the actor has often appeared in throughout his career. His character, a riverboat gypsy called Roux, appears on the "Chocolat" poster; and featured prominently in the advertising. Yet, Depp's part in the film is relatively minor compared to the rest of the cast.

Really, the bulk of the film revolves around Juliette Binoche's expert chocolatière and her dealings with characters played by Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin, and Carrie-Anne Moss. For his part, Depp offers plenty of support with his roguish good looks and natural charisma. While the film may not live up to the heights established in the actor's previous collaboration with Hallström, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," there's still plenty to admire in this lighthearted comedy, and more than enough to keep Depp fans' attention.

From Hell (2001)

"From Hell" is one of those overlooked gems that deserves more credit than it's given. We won't toss around words like "classic" or "masterpiece," but there's so much to admire in this production from the Hughes Brothers (loosely based on Alan Moore's graphic novel) that it's a shame audiences and critics overlooked it back in October 2001.

Johnny Depp stars as Inspector Frederick Abberline, who embarks on a mission to stop the infamous Jack the Ripper during the height of his murder spree in 1888. As Frederick grows closer to the case, and becomes involved in the welfare of a young prostitute named Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), he discovers a vast conspiracy that points to British high society — maybe even the crown itself.

Dark, brooding, atmospheric, and quite ballsy for its day, "From Hell" works as a gritty thriller with a couple of interesting (though factually absurd) twists. Depp and Graham are terrific while Ian Holm and Robbie Coltrane offer solid support in small, albeit pivotal roles.

Really, though, this is the Hughes Brothers' show, and the directors deliver plenty of suspense and chills even as the plot flies off the rails in the third act. The film earned $74.6 million worldwide when it was released, but was mostly discarded by critics as a far too bleak (and gory) murder mystery. Give this one a look, if you haven't already — and try it again if the first time didn't stick. You might be surprised by the results.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Robert Rodriguez's "Mexico Trilogy" capper isn't necessarily a Johnny Depp star vehicle, but the man figures prominently enough within the film to warrant mention on this list. Playing CIA agent Sands, Depp practically steals the show with his trademark quick wit and goofy antics. At one point, his character is blinded after a ruthless drug lord drills out his eyes and leaves him for dead, forcing Sands to take up arms alongside a character named Chicle Boy. The results are exciting, often funny, and more than worth the price of admission.

As for the film itself, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" remains the lesser of Rodriguez's trilogy that began with 1992's "El Mariachi" and 1995's "Desperado." The convoluted plot and crowded cast often steal the limelight from Antonio Banderas' roguish El Mariachi. Yet there's action aplenty — shot with Rodriguez's trademark style — and enough excitement to make the picture worth a second look.

Upon its release in 2003, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" earned decent reviews and collected $98.8 million against a $29 million budget. That's certainly nothing to balk at, but the film didn't exactly linger in the public consciousness, which is weird considering Depp was hot off the heels of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl."

At any rate, we suggest giving Rodriguez's flick a second look. As an action pic, it entertains, and as a lesser relic in Depp's massive oeuvre, it deserves more attention.

Secret Window (2004)

"Secret Window" is one of those throwaway Stephen King adaptations that doesn't quite gel as well as it should. Yet Johnny Depp has so much fun as Mort Rainey that you can't help but be enthralled by the eerie happenings on display.

Rainey is a novelist suffering from writer's block who begins encountering strange happenings around his isolated cabin. He is stalked and attacked by a violent man named John Shooter (John Turturro) who claims Mort stole his idea for a book called "Secret Window," finds his dog stabbed to death, and engages in conversations with himself. The resolution isn't nearly as captivating as the journey, but there's enough style, humor, and winning performances to earn the low-grade thriller a look or two. 

Released in 2004, "Secret Window" grossed $92 million worldwide and earned mixed reactions from critics and audiences who praised Depp's quirky performance, but left theaters feeling let down by a lackluster finale. While it doesn't come close to King's best adaptations, the film is entertaining enough for a Saturday night viewing.

The Libertine (2004)

Johnny Depp has a tendency to choose quirky, off-brand projects that give him the freedom to display his peculiar acting style. When done correctly, we get "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Donnie Brasco." When done incorrectly, we get films such as "The Libertine," a puzzling misfire that nonetheless beckons your attention if only because Depp really goes for it in this one. 

John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, is an egomaniac living a life of self-indulgence, wine, and women. Lots of women. Sometimes men. His swift descent makes up the bulk of the plot as the sins of his life lead to all manner of diseases and unwanted attention from the crown. 

The most surprising aspect of "The Libertine" is how unlikable Depp's character is. Right from the start he warns us that he's not a good man — "You will not like me," he says — and spends the remainder of the film showing us why. It's a remarkable Depp-esque acting performance that's as far removed from Jack Sparrow as one would imagine, and all the better for it. You may not enjoy the experience, but you'll revel at the actor's willingness to use his stardom to venture out into unique, often wild new directions.