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Why is 'The Ninth Gate' such a fright, Johnny?

By Ashley Fantz

MARCH 20, 2000: 

Memo To: Johnny Depp

From: Yet another insatiable film critic

Re: That terrible new movie The Ninth Gate

When I first saw you on 21 Jump Street, I knew you were special, just something about the way you swallowed that balloon of coke to keep from blowing your cover at a high-school kegger. But why is it that for every Ed Wood, there's a Nick of Time; for every What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Astronaut's Wife? And now why, Johnny, after hitting the brick wall hard with Sleepy Hollow, did you think The Ninth Gate would fare any better?

Sure, unsuspecting actors would say Roman Polanski's directing is reason enough. I've seen Death and the Maiden, too. And the book the film's based on, Arturo Perez Reverte's El Club Dumas, is a carefully spun mystery about bibliophiles, people who possess books as decoration of status. A strange fetish -- participants pet a book's binding, run their fingers over illustration etchings, and smell its paper.

To bibliophiles, owning a book is the same thing as owning the knowledge contained therein. So maybe you were thinking, what hard-core bibliophile wouldn't want to own a book written by the devil himself?

There are only three copies of this book that will unlock the ninth and final gate to hell. It's up to the story's hero, you as Dean Corso, to track them down and compare them to decide their legitimacy. The role is clearly for a thinking-man's actor. Someone contemplative yet sexy. Someone whose hair could be obviously dusted with white powder and wear ridiculous, bug-eye glasses and still be sexy enough to sleep with Lena Olin. And, she, by the way, is killer as the Satan-worshiping, bored, rich housewife who married a tortured wealthy codger so that she could buy one of the coveted copies. But she's not interested in raising the dead as much as casting spells for fortune and eternal good looks. It's like seeing Anna Nicole Smith years from now ... only with a better body, talent, dark hair, and a vocabulary.

Johnny, did you sign on because you heard Frank Langella was going to co-star? Or was it Polanski's foxy French import Emmanuelle Seigner as your bewitching guardian angel who made you forget that the "find the gateway to hell" plot is only slightly less exhausted than the "innocent man tries to avenge family and clear his name" story line? Both actors do the best with what they have. Seigner looks scruffy throughout, her blond hair tied up messily, wearing dirty jeans and orange socks. She has as many lines as a Bond babe, but she does get to fly down a flight of stairs, go kung fu on some bad guys, and change her eye color like any skilled witch. Of course, she would be a wasted character if we never got to see her breasts. Polanski really is a great director. He saves that for the end.

Langella as Boris Balkan is a fright. Who broke into Swifty Lazar's pad and stole a pair of his goofy glasses for Langella to wear? As the ultimate bibliophile, Langella is a college professor with a taste for the occult. Corso is his right-hand book thief, swindling people out of their inherited first editions of Don Quixote. Balkan hides in a damp library high above a comic-book Manhattan skyline, sucking in his imaginary power and salivating over the possibility that the book he's recently bought from Olin's dead husband is the work of Beelzebub. Isn't the pentagram on the cover clue enough? He doesn't even bother to see if the prince of darkness had signed it. Instead he hands a hefty check to Corso to figure it out.

So, Johnny, this is when the drama begins? The intrigue, the circle of people in black cloaks chanting, the edge-of-your-seat, Rosemary's-baby kind of gore? Is it when Corso arrives in Europe to visit the other two owners of the rare copies, that Polanski decided to revisit his B movie days? Because if camp is what the director was going for, he's the Boy Scout with the toastiest marshmallow.

There was no better casting than two elderly twin brothers who own a rare books store in Toledo. They complete each other's sentences with a twitch of their matching bushy mustaches. Answering Corso's questions about the mysterious book, they cock their eyebrows up, give a chuckle, and tell him he's messing with fire. Bruuhahahaha!

But maybe the joke all along is on Corso who seems unflappable in delivering the good news to Balkan, despite freak accidents and dead bodies that keep popping up. If Polanski was purposefully trying to evoke laughter, Barbara Jefford gives kitsch a new name. The old bag is menacing with a hook for an arm and a mangled German accent. Wrinkled and refined, she's the Miss Havisham of book collecting. Only a character so over-the-top would say she was writing the ultimate opus on evil while zipping over someone's feet in her electric wheelchair.

But Johnny, I want to know why you were in this movie. Was it the money? The chance to work with Polanski? Did you hit your head on a moon rock prop in The Astronaut's Wife? By the way, if it was the money, could you please mail me back my seven bucks? I'd rather rent your true scary masterpiece, Freddy's Dead: Nightmare on Elm Street 6.

As the credits started rolling on Mission to Mars, the sci-fi event movie starring Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins and directed by Brian De Palma, my friend Kevin and I sat in our seats while the rest of the auditorium fled. We were stunned silly by the abrupt, empty conclusion that had just hit us like someone ending a two-hour conversation by slapping you upside the head with a cold, dead fish.

"If the guys who made this film worked for me," said Kevin, a businessman and avowed lover of science fiction, "I'd want to see them in my office first thing in the morning."

It certainly does seem as if somebody's got some explaining to do. On paper it must have seemed like a good idea. A mix of Armageddon and Contact, Mission to Mars would depict space travel in realistic terms without laser beams and H.R. Geiger-derived monsters, yet still provide a thrill and, more to the point, the sense of wonder that motivates explorers in the first place.

On board for the project were the screenwriters behind such superior adventure thrillers as Predator and Speed (Jim Thomas and John Thomas, Graham Yost) A director (De Palma) known for his style and skill in giving audiences a suspenseful ride through the use of characters and inherent drama, not special effects. And two of today's best and brightest actors (Sinise and Robbins), distinguished for the quality and intelligence of the roles they choose to play.

But then everything just went to pot.

The title pretty much tells you the plot. After an advance exploration team, led by Don Cheadle's Commander Luke Graham, is apparently destroyed by a mysterious force on the red planet, NASA sends a rescue team to Mars, headed by Robbins and Sinise, to find out what happened and bring back any survivors. Of course, once they get there all hell breaks loose. There are problems landing on Mars. The team has to discover what happened to the original team. And then there's the confrontation with the mysterious force itself. You can see we're trying real hard not to give away too much of the story for fear that a handful of plot twists may be all this film has going for it.

Not that it would matter much. All these events are relayed with a cold clinical approach that robs them of any dramatic potential. It's a problem that is endemic to the characters as well. The rescue team's commander, Woody Blake (Robbins), wears a Flash Gordon toy rocket ship around his neck. It's telling because Blake and all his compatriots have the depth of '30s cartoon characters. There's not a bad guy in this movie. No torn or conflicted souls. Just smart, gung-ho adventurers, who, if they have a fault, it's that they are too selfless and heroic.

There's very little that does go according to plan on this mission. The thrilling action sequences aren't. The character are flat. And the big secret ultimately deserves a big So what?

At least De Palma (Blow Out, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible), who apparently lost interest in his story early on, is having fun with his camera. The film starts with another one of his signature long moving-camera one-takes, perhaps less obviously flamboyant than the one he concocted for Snake Eyes, but no less an achievement because it serves character and plot. And throughout the film, De Palma plays with the idea of a camera in zero gravity, floating and twisting and turning his images to dizzying effect. But still, it feels an awful lot like watching a grown man play with his toys. -- Mark Jordan

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