Johnny's talent can't save 'Ninth Gate' from the fires of B-movie hell
Opening like a cheap horror movie with titles that fly out of computer-animated castle facades, "The Ninth Gate" has an uphill battle to recover respectability from the very beginning.
Director Roman Polanski bounces back nicely at first though, weaving an eerie, Gothic fabric around this film featuring Johnny Depp as an unscrupulous rare book expert, hired by a cadaverous demonology collector (Frank Langella) to find and authenticate two similar copies of an ancient Satanic volume he has acquired through questionable means.
Sent to Portugal and Paris to study the other editions, Dean Corso (Depp) discovers the demonic engravings that grace each book differ slightly from copy to copy. Some of the drawings, he seems to believe, are signed by Lucifer himself.
Soon the owners of these other copies are murdered, the engravings have been stolen from the books, and Corso is caught up in a labyrinth of deception and danger that includes being hunted by the widow (Lena Olin) of the first book's rightful owner, and being followed by a mystery woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) with supernatural powers. Is she a guardian angel? An agent of his employer? Perhaps both?
It's enticing, but throughout the movie there are hints that lethal ludicrousness lurks around every corner, waiting for an opportunity to pounce on the picture and devour every foot of remaining film.
Adapting the film from the novel "El Club Dumas" by Arturo Perez Reverte, Polanski produces an effectively dark and otherworldly atmosphere without resorting to trite shadows-and-fog stylings. He has great command over what the audience is feeling for the first half of the movie, even though he fails to reveal enough about his hero to understand why he doesn't just walk away from the danger.
But by the time Corso and the mystery woman team up and swipe a cherry red Dodge Viper (product placement!) to follow Langella, "The Ninth Gate" has disintegrated into the high-brow equivalent of a cheap, straight-to-video thriller -- the kind that usually feature sexy vampires played by porno actresses looking to go legit. For the last 40 minutes of the movie, Polanski could have swapped Depp for talent-challenged fellow "Jump Street" alum Richard Grieco and it wouldn't have made a scrap of difference.
Until "Ninth Gate" turns vapid in the last couple reels, Depp gives a deeply immersed performance, playing Corso's serpentine nature beautifully and even affecting a deeper, clearer, more educated vocal inflection than we've heard from him before. However, his credibility as a book expert is shaky at best. A true connoisseur would closely examine bindings, etc. A true connoisseur wouldn't smoke while flipping through fragile, 600-year-old volumes, letting ash fall on the pages.
Langella ("Lolita") is also unrecognizable, looking somehow reptilian and very ominous in thick glasses, a gray wig. But he becomes absurd once it's revealed his character is the leader of a cult whose members wear dark satin cloaks and meet to chant at picturesque chateaux in the kind of shopworn scenes that looked ridiculous even before Stanley Kubrick revived them in "Eyes Wide Shut."
Already 30 minutes longer than it needed to be, "Ninth Gate" becomes a total washout with Langella's inevitable and laughably hackneyed, fire-and-brimstone Satan-rising ritual -- which, of course, takes place in the foreboding ruins a remote castle.
"Yes! Yes! All is in readiness! I feel the power surge through me!" he laughs maniacally. "Muh-ha-ha-ha-ha! I'm invincible!"
I swear I'm not making this up.