Roman Polanski, 1999
Starring: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigneur
I have an almost obsessive love for the films of Roman Polanski, but, as they say, the buck apparently stops here. Despite its issues, I still think the film is worth viewing, particularly if you want to watch something satanically themed. It's also a much better film than the somewhat similarly-themed The Devil's Advocate.
Based on Perez-Reverte's novel The Dumas Club, The Ninth Gate follows the career of morally-questionable rare books dealer Dean Corso (Depp). He is hired by the very wealthy Boris Balkan (Langella) to track down all three copies of a rare book supposedly written by the Devil himself. The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows is a seventeenth century tome with few surviving copies. Balkan wants Corso to track down the two remaining copies in Europe and persuade their owners to part with them. At the very least, he wants Corso to carefully compare the books and the engravings printed in them.
Corso is reluctant to set out on this adventure, but can't turn down the money. He immediately meets with resistance in the form of sultry widow Liana Telfer (Olin), whose dead husband sold her copy of the book to Balkan. She will do anything to get it back. Meanwhile, Corso keeps running into a strange woman (Seigneur), who seems to be some sort of guardian angel. Can he track down all the copies and keep his life at the same time?
While the plot is interesting and the film definitely has its worthwhile moments, for the most part the character of Corso is so slimy and unlikable that it's hard to keep a solid focus on him for the duration of the film. Though Polanski is usually excellent at maintaining audience interest in nebulous, unlikable, or mentally unstable main characters, it just doesn't work here. Depp does give a good performance, as does everyone else. I have a passionate love for Frank Langella, who gives a no-holds barred performance as Balkan. He makes the film worth watching, though Olin and Seigneur also put in a good effort.
It's hard for me to totally reject this film, even though I know it was almost universally reviled. It has beautiful set pieces, old books, Satanic lore, and a black mass. It's also convoluted and slow moving, but if you go in with the right expectations, you might be entertained. Do not, at any cost, make the mistake of assuming that this is Rosemary's Baby II. If you do get around to watching it, Frank Langella's performance at the end of the film is truly terrifying.
There's a region 1 DVD from Lion's Gate worth tracking down. If you like Polanski and slow-burning historical mysteries, please give it a shot.