In "The Ninth Gate" film director Roman Polanski turns his attention to the lofty world of rare-book collectors, where fascination with the Devil and his literary works apparently reigns supreme.
The two-plus-hour movie follows the trail of rare-book expert Dean Corso as he pursues the last remaining copies of a volume thought to be co-authored by the Devil himself in 1666.
It seems the Prince of Darkness got involved in the book deal so that owners of the tome could summon him into real life if they followed instructions contained in the nine woodcuts accompanying the text, each depicting a gate.
The script by Polanski and two others is based on European bestseller "El Club Dumas" by Arturo Perez-Reverte.
The chance to commune with the Devil has attracted intense interest among the world's top-of-the-heap book collectors, who vie for the three remaining copies (the rest were destroyed in a long-ago fire).
As usual, Polanski guides the script with an extraordinary eye for detail, shooting in a shades-of-blue-and-green palette that evokes mystery and intrigue in every set-location, from New York to Spain to Portugal to France.
Fans of Polanski's "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby" will appreciate the visual aspects of the film -- part-mystery thriller, part-occult - with its textural, atmospheric look at a fascinating business.
Alas, after building momentum nicely in the first half, the story line eventually comes apart, stutter-stepping to a halt with a series of silly resolutions of an otherwise interesting-enough mystery.
Johnny Depp as Corso comes across as a cool customer, combining a sharp intellect with a sullen demeanor and a flexible set of scruples to claw his way into the upper suites of his profession. And, of course, he goes about his work in an I-am-casually-beautiful sort of way.
A sleazier-then-thou book collector, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) has recently acquired a copy of "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows" (the Devil's own). He summons Corso to his New York-marbled nest to lay out the premise to the film.
At Balkan's behest (and payment), Corso heads for Europe in search of the two other copies for the assumed purpose of authenticating (or rejecting) their progeny. The story swoops into gear as the owner-collectors he meets soon die under violent circumstances, after Corso has discovered some key differences among the three copies.
It finally dawns on Corso that there's more here than meets the eye. He clues in on a young woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who seems to be shadowing him as a self-appointed bodyguard, saving him on occasion from attacks by others seeking the Devil's works.
Polanski takes the audience on a picturesque tour of Western Europe as Corso follows his leads -- on foot, by train, by luxury car, by pigs-going-to-market cart - toward the final resolution.
By then few will care how the movie turns out.
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