I distinctly remember being somewhat disappointed by Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate the first time I saw it. I walked in expecting some sort of devil-centric horror thriller and walked out two hours later really in the mood for a cup of coffee. Not that it was a bad flick, but at the time I thought it was more than a little dry and uneventful -- mainly because I was expecting a horror flick.
But after some time and distance I was compelled to give The Ninth Gate a second spin, and I've now come to the opinion that, while it's still not a horror movie, the film is a very engaging (and appreciably dark) film noir throwback that just happens to have something to do with the occult. Call it a noir thriller mystery drama if you like -- it's still a pretty solid flick.
Johnny Depp stars as a rare book expert called Dean Corso. While definitely capable of some pretty shady dealings, Dean is a pretty decent guy, all things considered. So when a mysterious tycoon offers the money-hungry Corso a very high-paying gig -- he's required to travel to Madrid and Paris to confirm the legitimacy of two ancient devil-books -- our anti-hero responds the only way he can. (Well, the only way he can if we're expected to get a story out of it!) Thus begins a long and winding road for Corso, one that begins with mild shivers and a cocksure attitude ... and ends with moments of self-immolation and some really "devilish" dealings.
To offer a more thorough synopsis would spoil much of the fun. Polanski delivers his story like it's Angel Heart mixed with an old Jules Dassin piece: Corso is not a completely heroic guy, but he's just decent enough to keep the audience compelled -- and once the twists start tightening and a bunch of side players get killers, I bet The Ninth Gate will have you semi-stuck to your couch, just waiting to see how it will all turn out.
As usual, Depp is the man. Here he's playing a slightly sleazy and definitely opportunistic little man, but damn if Depp doesn't find that root of gnarled humanity and brings it right to the fore. Frankly, with a lesser actor, I doubt my second visit with The Ninth Gate would have been so pleasurable, but this flick hails from a pre-Pirates era, one in which Depp melted effortlessly into whatever character he was playing. Frank Langella and Lena Olin provide capable foils to Depp's character. We're not exactly sure what these two are up to, but it's a safe bet it's not something pleasant.
Sometimes dry, sometimes wacky, but surprisingly compelling throughout, The Ninth Gate falls firmly in the middle of Polanski's eclectic filmography. It sure isn't as good as The Tenant or Rosemary's Baby -- but it definitely isn't Pirates, either.
(This is not a new release. Lionsgate tossed a brand-new slipcover onto the old Artisan DVD. So if you're a big fan of this particular movie, then you're presently reading a review of a DVD you already own.)
Audio / Video: Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, which does the job quite well. The anamorphic ("matted") transfer is solid enough, although nothing too spectacular.
Roman Polanski provides a solo commentary track, which is as semi-dry and slow-moving as it is insightful and stocked with production anecdotes. It's by no means the most colorful chat-track you'll ever hear, but if you're a big Polanski fan, hey, here's two solid hours with the guy.
Also included is a 2-minute promotional featurette, some trailers, production notes, cast & crew bios, storyboards, and (yikes) a "gallery of satanic drawings."
I'd say it's worth seeing for Depp's performance alone, but there's a bunch of other good stuff in there, too. Weird but true: I also really enjoyed the intentionally (?) incongruous musical score. No idea why.