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Johnny Depp needs a box office hit

Johnny Depp needs a box office hit — Will ”Nick of Time” and a possible ”Speed Racer” role give the star’s popularity a kick?

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In the leading-man Grand Prix, Johnny Depp has been losing laps. Though he received high marks for quirky performances in Don Juan DeMarco, Ed Wood, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, none of those films made much noise at the box office. Perhaps that’s why he’s currently filming the action-adventure Nick of Time. (Look what Speed did for Keanu Reeves.) It might also explain the actor’s interest in playing the title role in Speed Racer — a live-action version of the animated Japanese TV series that’s slated to begin shooting next September. With ‘toon-based features like The Flintstones burning up the box office in recent seasons, Depp may see a chance to pull ahead of the pack.

But without Flintstone-level name recognition, can Speed Racer pack the theaters? Only if cool counts. The original cartoon show, with its teenage samurai race-car-driver hero and his bizarrely blank-eyed entourage ranks high on the retro-hipness scale.

Despite the cartoon’s cachet, however, early attempts at the Racer-remake screenplay were black-flagged into turnaround. The current screenplay, by J.J. Abrams, will be directed by Julien Temple (Absolute Beginners) and is purportedly more mainstream-friendly than the previous, darker draft by Patrick Johnson. Says producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, ”This is happening because we finally got the script right.” Whether it’s right enough to put Depp back in the winner’s circle remains to be seen. Gentlemen, start your engines.

(reporting by Jeffrey Wells)