"The Ninth Gate" leaves its own gate with a fairly intriguing premise: Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a wealthy collector of rare books, sends expert Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) to Europe to locate the remaining two copies of an exotic text Balkan has just acquired. With all three tomes in hand, the seasoned Corso should be able to confirm or deny their authenticity.
Depp looks the part of a "rare-book detective," as one character describes him. A goatee, unkempt hair and spectacles frame the determined expression of a dedicated literary sleuth. That dedication is tested almost immediately: Corso's search reveals repeated inconsistencies in the books' illustrations. Everywhere he goes, he's followed by a nameless blonde (Emmanuelle Seigner) who's beautiful in an unkempt mode; meanwhile, "accidents" keep occurring around him.
As the untoward incidents start piling up, we should be inching closer to the edges of our seats. Director Roman Polanski has moved us there before -- witness "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown." Yet Corso's pursuit plods forward across dramatic terrain that's very nearly flat. Even when it becomes clear that supernatural forces are at work -- the book, after all, was reputedly co-written by the Devil himself -- the suspense meter doesn't kick into high gear. Like Corso, Polanski is reaching for something he can't find.
Some interesting faces pop up along the way, including Lena Olin as Liana Telfer, the widow of the volume's previous owner. Langella dispenses his usual hauteur as Balkan, and Depp takes one more step in a career that's often found him picking adventuresome roles in unworthy movies. (See The Astronaut's Wife.)
Unwilling to settle on one climax to his lumbering narrative, Polanski seems to have included them all. There's even a set piece that bears a striking resemblance to the erotically infernal scenarios posited by Stanley Kubrick in last year's Eyes Wide Shut. Uh-oh.
Perhaps John Travolta knew what he was doing when he excused himself from Polanski's (later aborted) "Double" a few years ago. A mighty creative force before his infamous personal troubles forced him out of mainstream filmmaking, the director has long been overdue for a cinematic welcome-home party. Instead, "The Ninth Gate" presents us with a detective story that's not; a gumshoe whose conclusions are uncertain at best; and villains who prove to be no more nefarious than any others of their ilk. To quote from Polanski's own canon, "Let it go, Jake; it's just Chinatown."