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'Ninth Gate': Something Vapid This Way Comes

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2000


    'The Ninth Gate' Johnny Depp plays a macho bookworm in "The Ninth Gate." (Artisan Entertainment)
It is one of the dark religions of mankind, driven by an excessive admiration for all the forces of chaos and tumult. And Roman Polanski is its high priest.

Satanism? Not at all. It is the church of idiocy and, in fact, on the basis of "The Ninth Gate," Polanski may be more than its high priest, he may be its pope!

What a dog! ARRRRRRFFFFFFFFF! What utter spewing mewling nonsense.

Johnny Dip--oh, sorry folks, that's Johnny Depp--is some kind of scurrilous rare-book dealer named Dean Corso who scurries about the world in search of deals. His specialty appears to be bilking the survivors of just-deceased bibliophiles out of their inheritances. Though how he can think to add the numbers up is a mystery, as he's always got a tumbler of Scotch with him. What, he thought he was doing a bio of Dino? (Yes, I understand the booze is meant as a symbol of his self-loathing and that it's meant to suggest he can do such things only by keeping his conscience pickled in alcohol; but he needs a 12-step plan a lot more than he needs this movie.)

He's hired by an evil billionaire named--I am not making this up--Boris Balkan, played by that epicene lizard Frank Langella in a pitch of such screaming snootiness you wonder that he has the energy to breathe. Balkan is a collector of the occult, and he's just acquired one of three extant copies of "The Ninth Gate," a kind of medieval "Satan for Dummies." He hires the sleazy Depp to fly to Europe and, by whatever low means possible, examine the other two copies to adjudicate which is the authentic, and any other arcana of note.

So, yes, this is a movie about a man looking at books. He goes here, he looks at books, he goes there, he looks at books. You can see as much action in any downtown Borders.

But you do see a couple of things you probably wouldn't encounter there. One of them is Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, as some sort of kick-boxing anti-angel with beautiful breasts. She flies--I kid you not!--and her husband manages to get her naked by the end of the movie. Folks, I've been to a lot of bookstores, and I ain't never ever seen a flying nude Euromodel.

The subtext to all these books and breasts is religion, of course, but in no coherent fashion. In fact, the religion is somewhat helter-skelter but it does appear that Miss Seigner--known in credits merely as "The Girl," and any movie with a character in it named "The Girl" already has real problems--is Depp's guardian demon. She shows up at odd moments in his book odyssey, always on a motorcycle, always with mismatched socks, always rescuing him.

Her competition is Dennis Rodman. No, drat, it's not Dennis Rodman; that would be too interesting. Rather, it's a big blond black guy who apparently works for Lena Olin but takes his style notes from Rodman. Olin shows up intermittently as the widow of one of the collectors with an equally intense interest in comparing the three volumes.

All this comes to a head at an orgy of exactly the old-fashioned kind that so intrigued Stanley Kubrick in "Eyes Wide Shut": You know, half-naked women in cowls chanting to the Devil in a candle-lit sanctum deep in a mansion that, like Kubrick's, has been penetrated with absurd ease by outsiders. It's all too silly for words; it's even too silly for film.

Now and then Polanski cooks up a touch neat enough to remind you that he was once a great director. One is a strangled old lady whose mechanized wheelchair is beating spastically against a wall with its cargo flopping loosely in its bosom. Another is an image of man who thinks he's satanically empowered as the Antichrist but is instead a deluded narcissist; he sets himself on fire to prove his imperviousness to pain and discovers what all schoolboys know--ouch, fire hot!

But Polanski, generally, has fallen farther than Lucifer, and into a more profoundly depressing hell, the hell of utter banality.

THE NINTH GATE (93 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for graphic sex and violence, as well as a distressingly sparse goatee clinging wanly to Mr. Depp's chin.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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"The Ninth Gate"
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