Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner
Written by: John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu, Roman Polanski, based on a novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Directed by: Roman Polanski
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and sexuality
Running Time: 133
Date: 08/25/1999
IMDB

The Ninth Gate (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Judging a Book by Its Cover

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Ninth Gate is the first film from legendary director Roman Polanski since his double-whammy in 1994, Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden. Those two films left us believing that the exiled filmmaker may still have the right stuff. After all, this is the guy who gave us Repulsion (1965), Rosemary's Baby (1968), andChinatown (1974). But after a strong start, The Ninth Gate disintegrates into Pirates (1985) territory.

Still, there's much to recommend about The Ninth Gate. The plot reminded me of more pedestrian Hollywood thrillers like The Bone Collector and Double Jeopardy and it felt good to be in the hands of someone who knows how to deliver the thrills. Polanski favors longer, quieter moments that allow for introspection. In one scene, our hero, rare book expert Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) fears he's being trailed by a strange man. He ducks into a cafe and watches the man through the window. Polanski keeps them both there for a while. Empty glasses pile up on Corso's table. Suddenly, as the sun goes down, the lights go on in the cafe, and Corso can only see his own reflection. In that instant, the stranger could have gone anywhere.

Corso has been hired by a collector (Frank Langella) to find two other existing editions of a rare Satanic book, one in Portugal and the other in Paris. Several other people are after the books as well, including Lena Olin. But Corso is aided by a beautiful otherworldly girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) who is able to fly and disappear. The story goes through several twists and turns and, sadly, it gets more and more absurd as it goes.

Once we figure out the secret of the three books, the movie just becomes a chase, with everyone trying to get their grubby hands on the books. Good climax points keep coming up, but the movies refuses to end. There's even a typical "satanic ritual" scene that looks like it might have been lifted from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"; everyone in it wears red silk robes. And no explanation is ever given for why the girl is there and how she has these powers (beyond the fact that she's the director's wife).

But again, the first hour of the picture is sublime. There's a lot of quiet mystery around the notion of a book detective. As Corso travels around the world, picking up bits of the mystery, we're with him, wondering what's coming around the next corner. And Polanski, whose specialty is paranoia, is at his best in this arena. He, along with Brian De Palma, is the true heir to Hitchcock. And so, despite the lousy last half, I'm giving The Ninth Gate a recommendation. It's better to see a lesser work by a master than an ordinary work by a typical Hollywood hireling.

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