Picks and Pans Review: The Ninth Gate

updated 03/20/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner

There's something fundamentally squirrely about Johnny Depp, even in his good-guy roles. That sense that he may go seriously off at any moment is used to great advantage in The Ninth Gate, a supernatural thriller that starts off decently but winds up spectacularly silly. Depp plays a rare-books dealer of dubious ethics. He is hired by a sinister publishing mogul (Langella) who wants him to compare and contrast the three remaining copies of a rare 17th-century tome that supposedly contains the secret to conjuring up the Devil. The deeper Depp digs into the pages, the more obvious it becomes that there are indeed Faustian forces at work, forces Depp finds hard to resist.

Gate is cowritten and directed by Roman Polanski, who made Rosemary's Baby (1968), a scarier, more compelling film about learning to love Lucifer. Gate may be minor by comparison, but it still manages to allow Polanski welcome opportunities to indulge his penchant for ghoulish humor, including a scene in which Olin, as a murderous widow, orders a henchman to move a captive Depp and his pal from her bedroom to a basement. "Don't kill them up here," she says, "you'll make a mess." (R)

Bottom Line: The devil may care, but viewers won't

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