Maybe it's a millennium thing, but there sure have been a lot of movies dealing with God and Satan lately. And though the rule of thumb for a thriller is that a nasty bad guy is more important than a good hero, it seems the movies that focus on God lately are much better than those that focus on Satan.
Looking at the movies appearing in the years bracketing the inaccurate celebration of the turning of the millenium so far, we see last year's solid critical and commercial hits with blatant Christian allegorical elements The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, and The Green Mile. This trinity by my count had God 3 for 3 in a supporting role.
Satan, however had a real losing streak. He or his minions were central to The Omega Code, The End of Days, and Stigmata, all were badly panned flops. In a starring role, Satan went 0 for 3.
Well, even a new coach doesn't get Beelzebub off the schnide in The Ninth Gate. The sometimes great Roman Polanski takes the helm, and keeps the dark side in the game for the first three quarters, but things fall apart in the end. O for 4.
Johnny Depp stars as Dean Corso, an unscrupulous rare book dealer. He finds ways to rip off estates and sell rare books at a huge profit. One of his clients is Frank Balkan, (Frank Langella) a publishing magnate with a taste for rare, old occult literature.
Balkan has recently acquired a book so rare that only three copies still exist in the world. It supposedly has the secret to finding the Ninth Gate, a portal through which Satan can be summoned.
Balkan says he wants Corso to compare his book to the other three to authenticate it -- or to debunk either his copy, or perhaps one or more of the others. Depp first visits the widow of the previous owner, Liana Tefler, (a ferocious Lena Olin) who is shocked to hear that her late husband sold the book. Liana turns out to be a dragon lady of a more literal sort. She seduces Corso, then attacks him, trying to steal the book.
Death dogs Corso's heels as he travels throughout Europe, studying the other copies, and trying to unravel the secret of the Ninth Gate. He is shadowed -- or protected -- by a mysterious young woman (Emmanuelle Seigner, who also was in Polanski's Frantic).
For the first hour and forty-five minutes, The Ninth Gate is an intriguing and sometimes eerie detective story -- though VERY slow moving. Polanski knows how a movie should look, and uses a nice mix of modern and Gothic locations to set the mood. His use of shadow and color at times recall Hitchcock, as does the fluidity and grace of his storytelling style.
But then without warning, dull turns to ludicrous, as action and plot twists fly at the audience from left field -- if not the bleachers. Artistic pretension turns to wild camp in a half hour that seems about to end about three times. Even when The Ninth Gate finally does reach a silly anticlimax, you half expect the voice from the info-mercial to call out, "But wait, there's more!"
When one character interrupts a Black Mass by yelling "Mumbo jumbo! Mumbo jumbo!" a response of "Amen!" or "Can I get a witness, brother!" might be inappropriate in that setting; but you almost feel obligated to stand up and voice some agreement that it is the pefect commentary on this movie.