A film review by Craig J. Koban

CONSTANTINE jjj

2005, R, 120 mins.

John Constantine: Keanu Reeves / Angela and Isabel Dodson: Rachel Weisz / Chas: Shia LeBeouf / Midnite: Djimon Hounsou / Beeman: Max Baker / Father Hennessy: Pruitt Taylor Vince / Balthazar: Gavin Rossdale / Gabriel: Tilda Swinton / Satan: Peter Stormare

Directed by Francis Lawrence /  
Written by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, based on characters from the Hellblazer graphic novels.

"Constantine (double-sided)" Movie Poster

There is a very small, yet key moment in the new supernatural thriller CONSTANTINE where the film’s protagonist, John Constantine, is being swept away to another other worldly place and still manages to have the fortitude to look back at his nemesis, in this case Lucifer, and give him the finger.  It’s a sly and funny little moment in this dark tale of a chain smoking demon hunter, but it kind of does a good job of thoroughly encapsulating the entire film. 

CONSTANTINE is by no means a perfect outing into this often challenging genre, but there’s no denying its style, scope, and pageantry of its visual wit, not to mention that it tells a story that is taken very seriously, but still manages to have moments where its own inherent sense of humour is revealed as being rather tongue in cheek.  Basically, CONSTANTINE, despite its flaws, is quite a lot of fun, made all the more easy by the presence of the master of quintessential stoicism – Keanu Reeves. 

Movies about heaven, hell and the forces that populate it have made for a rather mixed bag in recent cinematic memory.  There was THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE (also staring Reeves), which sort of shrewdly and deviously had the devil come in the guise of a rich lawyer that woes the younger protégée into his inner circle.  Then there was 2004’s HELLBOY, a film that I did not altogether enjoy.  It was visually impressive, but kind of oddly pigeonholed by its own inherent preposterousness.  In my review I wrote that it suffered “severely from an inconsistent tone” and that it was difficult to know when the film was trying to be either intentionally or unintentionally funny.  That film concerned a young devil that grew into a man-devil and fought for the US government against all the forces of evil.  Oh, he liked to smoke big cigars, file down his horns, and little kittens. 

Now comes CONSTANTINE, yet another exploration into the genre of the weird and strange.  This film is based on the “mature readers only” graphic novels HELLBLAZER.  They concern the exploits of a rather reluctant kind of super hero named John Constantine, who, whether he really likes it or not, has the power to see things that others wished they never could and, through of series of complex events, is forced into a cat and mouse struggle that pits the forces of good (heaven and God) versus those of evil (Hell and Satan). 

The film is an optical tour de force and will greatly appease fans of the original novels.  The story has had some liberties taken with it in its translation to the big screen (the Constantine character was British in the books, but Californian in the film, no doubt changed when Reeves was cast).  Yet, superficial changes aside, CONSTANTINE did what HELLBOY got wrong.  Yes, CONSTANTINE is shadowy, dreary, depressing and murky with its subject matter and main character, but it also does a good job of balancing moments of humour while suspending our sense of disbelief.  The film may be muddled by a meandering screenplay that lacks focus, but I bought into the world after awhile and sort of got sucked in rather soon, and with a breezy performance by Reeves, its easy to root for the guy, despite how cynical and hard edged he is.   

Telling a story that inherently deals with God, the Devil, angels and demons can have a polarizing effect.  On one hand, the whole notion of them can be highly ridiculous if handled incorrectly (see END OF DAYS), other times it can be seen as sacrilegious (see DOGMA, which can sort of be forgiven because of its inherent silliness - it was a comedy after all).  What CONSTANTINE does so effectively is take its subject with equal level of genuineness and absurdity all while throwing in elements of black magic and the occult.  It kind of makes for a interesting hybrid film, Philip Marlow meets Faust, and CONSTANTINE goes a bit further by revealing that Heaven and Hell may not be the most simply delineated black and white heroes and villains we may see them as.   

John Constantine does not occupy the absurd plane of existence of HELLBOY.  He kind of owes more to the angst ridden anti-heroes of the gritty, film-noir, revenge comics like THE PUNISHER where they often feel propelled into their hero role not because they want to, but because events beyond their control force them too.  They are not heroes that are trying to save the world because it’s the right thing to do; rather, they do it either for the purposes of revenge or vindication.  In John Constantine’s case, he does it for even more deeply penetrating purposes.  Whereas most comic anti-heroes seek revenge, Constantine seeks redemption so he can eventually get into heaven, a much more lofty and difficult task to achieve, especially if you are the type of man Constantine is. 

As a child, as one flashback in the film shows us, Constantine is able to see things that none of us can.  He is able to see in everyday life that not all that walk among us are humans.  Some are humans, to be sure, but others are half devils and half-angels that walk the earth.  Of course, his parents think young Johnny to be crazy and send him to an institution where they do what they do to all boys that claim to see demons – give them electroshock therapy.  Eventually, this life of torture is too much to bare and Constantine eventually tries to take his own life.  He did die, for a few minutes, and did in fact go to hell (Catholic dogma succinctly dictates that suicide equals a one way ticket to h-e-double hockey sticks).

However, he is abruptly sent back to earth and now, as an adult, Constantine desperately tries to atone for his selfish action and tries to kill as many demons as he can in order to please God and get back into heaven.  In does not appear to be working, as God is not a deity to impress easily, not to mention that Constantine is way too nihilistic and pessimistic for heaven.  He also does not seem to get much help along the way.  As a vicious chain smoker, a doctor tells him one day that he has lung cancer.  When Constantine subsequently complains to the angelic Gabriel (Tildon Swinton) that God is letting him die for all his hard work, she dryly deadpans back to him, “You are going to die young because you've smoked 30 cigarettes a day since you were 13."  His confidence is not made all the easier by the presence of the demonic Balthasar (Gavin Rossdale) who loves the fact that his earthly nemesis has cancer. 

Things go from bad to worse for the hero rather soon.  The half angels and devils are earthly manifestations that only Constantine can see and deal with, and he works tirelessly to cast out as many of the devilish critters as possible.  In simpler terms, these half beings are God’s and Satan’s worker bees that fight for them on earth.  Yet, Satan’s son is planning something extremely terrible: a cross over from the world or Hell into the real world, something which the forces of Heaven and Hell stipulated was “against the rules”.   To deal with this new threat of cataclysmic proportions, Constantine ultimately teams up with a Los Angeles cop, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), who is revealed can also see the damned.  Actually, her twin sister appears to have committed suicide at the beginning of the film…or did she? Angela is so beset by thoughts that something else metaphysical was at play with her sister’s death that she enlists in the aid of Constantine to help her put the pieces of this strange puzzle together.  Little did she know that it would involve her being sent to hell, momentarily by Constantine, to reveal some terrible truths. 

Constantine and Angela are not all alone in their nocturnal and demonic battles.  Constantine does have Beeman (Max Baker) a demon hunter Q of sorts (there always seems to be a tech dude in all super hero films these days) that gives Constantine all sorts of nifty weaponry, including a cylinder that shoots out dragon fire (“That was hard to get,” he explains).  Also, the two also enlist in Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), a witch doctor that runs a strange bar where half breed angels and devils can hang out and get inebriated and chill out.  I liked the method of gaining admittance to his establishment - a doorman holds up a card and asks Constantine what is behind it.  Being rather psychic, John gets entry every time.  Needless to say, Constantine discovers a conspiracy of sorts that eventually leads him to deal with his most dangerous villain of all, Lucifer himself, all while God sits out and watches.  Who said that the omelet that is the battle of heaven versus hell could be made without breaking a few eggs? 

CONSTANTINE has a considerable amount going for it, most notably its highly stylized visuals, which, more or less, kind of faithfully recreate the creepy atmosphere of the original graphic novels.   Director Francis Lawrence gets a lot of bang for his buck with his visual palette, and so much of CONSTANTINE caters to our ever-watchful eye.  Many scenes inspire our awe, whether it be the flame drenched panoramic shots of Hell to the twisted demons that possess it to the murky alleyways of Los Angeles, CONSTANTINE is never dull to look at.

If anything, the main failing of CONSTANTINE is its story.  Firstly, the makers can’t be blamed for trying to adapt several novels into one film.  They do achieve a sense of recreating the spirit and tone of the novels intact, and it will appeal to fans of the series.  The character of Constantine himself is presented well with the right blend of sarcasm and spunk, and in Reeves’ hands he is as emotionally vacant as ever, but that’s kind of a hidden compliment to him: his lack of sentiment kind of helps in his performance, as he is a cynical and depressing hero.  Yet, as Reeves demonstrated with THE MATRIX TRILOGY, he has a kind of inbred likeability that allows us to effectively root for him.   Like ELEKTRA, Constantine is actually an intriguing character that is not populating a truly invigorating story. 

Yet, despite its often-shoddy narrative, CONSTANTINE remains an enjoyable ride, a horror film that intrigues us with its visual opulence, interesting characters, and tricky sense of humour.  It’s a film that is not too demanding of its viewers, and as long as you don’t think too hard to look through the logical gaps in the screenplay, then the  film largely plays well and is action packed, exciting, bold, and audacious.  With a tighter and leaner script that had more focus, CONSTANTINE could have been a work on the level of great horror films, but it's still a rather light and fulfilling thriller that managed to be laughable and intriguing at the same time.  You just know when Reeves fires off wooden one –liners with a Schwarzeneggerian glee and flips the bird to Satan himself, then there is only so much of the film you have to take seriously.  The best advice -  let the film work on you and enjoy the ride.  CONSTANTINE is nothing altogether revealing or truly inspired, but it does not have to be in order to be a modestly enjoyable escapist fantasy.

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