The Ninth Gate

The Ninth Gate” (1999)
Johnny Depp, venerable director Roman Polanski and a mid-sized studio with a moderate budget ($38 million), that included European funds—this is no Hollywood project. And yet, it might as well be. While slightly more remarkable than the other films on this list, it’s not by much. In this mystery thriller (Depp’s kryptonite genre), Depp plays Dean Corso, an unscrupulous rare book dealer motivated by pure financial gain who is hired by a wealthy book collector (Frank Langella) to track down and authenticate all three copies of an ancient book that purportedly contains the secret to summoning the Devil. While seeking out the last two copies of this text, Corso gets drawn into a conspiracy that possesses supernatural overtones. Co-starring Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner (naturally) as a mysterious woman who comes to Corso’s aide, and Lena Olin, James Russo and American horror actor Jack Taylor, “The Ninth Gate” obviously comes shrouded in layers of the occult, but the backbone of the story is definitely in the noir-esque tradition of the patsy detective hired to do the dirty work for an immoral, shady and mysterious employer. And this is what gives “The Ninth Gate” its most interesting, if very familiar, notes. Aesthetically, it also has an appealing atmosphere as well thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji and Polish composer Wojciech Kilar ("The Pianist" and "We Own The Night"). Ultimately, however, you can only knock out your protagonist so many times before the audience gets annoyed at this contrived manipulation and “The Ninth Gate” travels down a pretty predictable path before it gets to its melodramatic, flame-soaked conclusion. While Depp has slightly more to do—his character is a disheveled, ne'er-do-well who doesn’t really give a damn for anyone but himself—it’s not the most exciting character or performance of his career either. Ironically, it was Depp who evidently reined himself in. "He [Depp] decided to play it rather flat which wasn't how I envisioned it,” Polanski told an interview candidly about his disappointment in the performance. “And I didn't tell him it wasn't how I saw it." Depp hinted at the friction by saying, "It's the director's job to push, to provoke things out of an actor” (though it should be noted that Polanski has nothing but praise for the “brilliant” actor in this interview). "The Ninth Gate” received sub-par reviews and only grossed $18 million domestically off a $38 million dollar budget. It’s often cited on the web of being a bad movie by a good director (we’ve got 20 such examples of that here), but clearly those writers have never seen Polanski’s “Pirates” (or “What?” for that matter) which makes “The Ninth Gate” look like a masterwork in comparison. [B-]

The Man Who Cried

The Man Who Cried” (2000)
The conventional wisdom says that Johnny Depp could not open a movie to great success until he became a worldwide megastar in the wake of 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” While that may be true, studios still loved the guy’s beautiful face and tried to put him front and center at all costs. See Sally Potter’s emigree drama “The Man Who Cried,” which however, is not a Johnny Depp film in the least. Starring Christina Ricci, Potter’s film centers on a displaced young Jewish girl (Ricci) who grows up in England after being separated from her father in Soviet Russia. As a young adult, she moves to Paris shortly  before the beginning of World War II to try and fulfill her lifelong dream of being a singer. And yet the poster for “The Man Who Cried” has Depp’s face front and center next to Ricci even though his role as a gypsy that she falls in love with is even smaller than the supporting roles of Cate Blanchett and John Turturro (Harry Dean Stanton might even have more lines than Depp’s largely taciturn character). Cesar the Gypsy is the rare character for Depp these days: the bit part. Apart from bedding Ricci, being quiet and being fond of horses, Depp’s definitely not an integral part of this movie, but we include it for your edification since it only made $747,000 in the U.S. for Universal/Focus and you’ve likely not seen it (unless you run a fansite for Depp, Ricci or Potter). It’s a decent, deliberately paced drama (read: a little bit slow), but it’s Potter so it’s at least marginally engaging, if not her best work. [C+]

Blow, Depp

Blow” (2001)
We suppose Ted Demme’s cocaine drama is perhaps the most-seen film on this list, but it, too, only did average business at the box-office, so that’s debatable. Detailing the story of real-life American cocaine smuggler George Jung, whose ‘70s drug empire was so big he made connections with Pablo Escobar, perhaps the appeal for Depp was family. Jung’s tale is a classic rags-to-riches, then fall from grace fable, and the underbelly of it all is about the character's need for redemption with his parents, including his unloving mother and his own family, especially his daughter. But while this texture is there, “Blow” is essentially more interested in being rock 'n’ roll. Its screenplay template is basically modeled on “Goodfellas” and as such it suffers greatly by trying to manufacture a fake and phony cool. The movie employs all kinds of garish style with the music—The Rolling Stones, Dylan, Faces, Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd—cranked up to 11 to not-so-lightly suggest to the audience: [over loud music so you can barely hear] “This lifestyle is so crazy, are we the kings of cocaine! What? What was that?!?” Though Depp does get to wear his hair long and blond, sport comically pimp sunglasses he might actually wear in real life, smoke cigarettes and dress in cool ‘70s outfits, so there is that. But there also isn’t a lot for Depp to do aside from wear various silly wigs of varying lengths over the years, play badass with a gun for a few moments and of course try and come to Jesus in a few moments with his father (Ray Liotta) and his daughter (a very young Emma Roberts). Co-starring Penélope Cruz, Franka Potente, Rachel Griffiths and Paul Reubens, “Blow” sounds good on paper, but it’s so desperate to be Scorsese-esque or the "Boogie Nights” of cocaine dealing, it never finds much of a compelling identity. It might have a sprawling ambition that spans a few decades, but it quickly buckles under the weight of pretty unimaginative direction and a rote script; we’ve seen it all before. Critics were mixed on the film, but arguably even so, too kind. “Blow” couldn’t make back its $53 million budget domestically and was another write-off for New Line. [C-]

The Libertine

The Libertine” (2004)
Slightly more financially successful than its art-house predecessor “The Man Who Cried,” Laurence Dunmore's 2004 British drama "The Libertine" is the last arthouse movie Johnny Depp deigned to star in so far (“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” only partly counts since he was called in after the fact as a favor, in a supporting part). Though surely The Weinstein Company had bigger designs for the movie than a paltry $4 million dollars given that it was released in their first year of operations. While it feels like a Infinitum Nihil pet project (Depp’s production company), it’s actually a Mr. Mudd labor of love (John Malkovich’s shingle; he co-stars). Given his own tendency for hedonism and vaguely authentic British accents, it’s no wonder Depp agreed to star as the rakish 17th century poet John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, who famously drank and debauched his way to an early grave, only to earn critical acclaim for his life's work posthumously. Featuring a long wig, the trademark Depp English accent and 17th century period clothing, Depp’s rendering of the Earl is typically flamboyant, but not as swishy and tipsy as say, Jack Sparrow. Co-starring Samantha Morton as the actress he helps blossom and then falls in love with, Rosamund Pike as his wife, Malkovich as King Charles II and a supporting cast that includes Tom Hollander, Rupert Friend and Kelly Reilly, there’s a lot of talent involved in this, but a shortage of inspiring moments. Perhaps it's the drab photography; though DOP Alexander Melman’s visuals appear to be shot on not-ready-for-prime-time digital cameras, but the film was actually shot on 35mm much to the detriment of his career and promo reel. But at least there's Michael Nyman's score, which might just be the most interesting creative element of the film, and Depp, who puts in a serviceably zealous turn as the depraved and contemptuous libertine. In the end it’s simply a murky and muddled picture, both visually and narratively. [C]