Monthly Archives: February 2005

Constantine (2005)

I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for Christian mythology played against thriller and action settings. I may be the only person to have watched all of The Prophecy flicks, and probably the only person that eagerly chows down on the cheesy sequels to The Substitute, yet shy away from seeing the first film. I’m captivated by the imagery, the discussion of Heaven and Hell and its mythical logistics, and just the psychology of supernatural biblical beings. With this in mind, I was strongly anticipating the release of Constantine. What I got wasn’t exactly what I expected but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t entertained.

John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a very troubled man. Since his youth he’s had to live with his gift that allows him to see through earthy disguises and witness angels and monstrous demons walking among us. He’s parlayed this ability into a modest side job of exorcising demons and sending them back to Hell. Constantine figures his loyal service should grant him passage into the pearly gates, but Archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) reminds him that that’s not how it works. Constantine is doomed to go to Hell because he tried taking his own life, and if that’s not enough he also has terminal lung cancer from smoking like a chimney. “In other words, you’re f***ed,” Gabriel confides to Constantine.

Police detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) is investigating the suicide of her twin sister (also Weisz). She swears her mentally disturbed sis wouldn’t do such a thing, and she seeks out the help of Constantine. He challenges her beliefs, stating that God and the Devil (Peter Stormare) have a wager over the souls of mankind but cannot directly interfere. But now something is breaking this rule and it looks like demons may be getting closer to entering our plane, and it looks like Angela’s dead sister may have known more than people would have thought.

The plot of Constantine is rife with contrivances, aborted subplots, underwritten and nearly forgotten supporting characters, and sketchy logic (staring at a cat can transport you to Hell? No wonder I’m a dog person). Often the film feels overwhelmed by good special effects, as they seem to be the crux of the film?s purpose of being and not, on the other hand, a theological playground of ideas. Constantine gives veiled glimpses of something smart, but routinely shuts that door to focus more on annoying jump scares.

In fact, Constantine seems rather old-fashioned with its theology, still clinging to the Roman Catholic belief that suicide is a one-way ticket to the fiery abyss. I understand its use as motivation for our lead, but will progressive audiences accept something they may find archaic? I suppose it could be worse. Constantine could have briefly gone to Hell for eating meat on a Friday.

It’s interesting that after spending two years making The Matrix sequels, Reeves would choose to attach himself to another big-budget theological action flick. His acting never really rises beyond morose loner but somehow he does make for a satisfying, brooding hero. Reeves? low-key monotone speaking voice allows him to spout cheesy dialogue with a straight face and mercifully keeps the audience grounded.

The true stars of Constantine are the memorable supporting players in this celestial smack down. Swinton uses her androgynous looks to forge what David Bowie might be like as an angel: angular, mysterious, waif, and somewhat creepy. Stormare delivers a performance so kooky and tic-heavy, that it could only be compared to the weirder moments of Christopher Walken. Both actors liven up the film and seem to be having the most fun by far with their cheeky roles.

The genius of Constantine is in its one-upsmanship game it holds with the audience. Granted, suspension of disbelief is needed to even go along for the ride, but when we start learning that Hell has its own line of bibles (and they’re longer) we’ve gone beyond suspension of disbelief and into wacky Anne-Heche-speaks-to-aliens land. While sitting through Constantine, we the audience think, “There’s no way this movie could get any sillier.” And then it does! We think, “Alright, that was crazy. Now there’s no way after that this film could get any sillier.” And then it does! Constantine is an amazing ascent into movie madness. After a while, I became drunk from the film’s insanity and wanted it to get even crazier, if possible. It almost seems like there’s a drinking contest between the movie and the audience, and Constantine isn’t afraid to piss its pants to win.

By the time Lucifer shows up, clad in all white like Tom Wolfe, and the Dark Lord appears to have Tourette’s Syndrome and/or a speech impediment, Constantine has hit the bottom of its Kool-Aid cup. Sure the film’s cinematography is slick, and the premise is intriguing, but the real draw of Constantine and the real enjoyment of the flick is how bat-shit crazy it is. I cannot even think of comparable films. I hope David Lynch was taking notes if he saw this.

For a while there, it seems director Francis Lawrence wanted Constantine to be a companion to Wesley Snipe’s Blade character. Maybe the two of them can set up a play date and go destroy otherworldly creatures. There’s a visually striking sequence late in the film involving Constantine in a room full of demons. He’s “contaminated” the water system by placing a giant cross inside, thus holy-fying the water before he can bottle it and sell it to the masses. He holds a lighter to the sprinkler system, demons growling all around him ready for their kill, and then water sprays down across the room. “Holy water?” one female demon says in a stunned voice, watching her flesh sizzle away. Then Constantine marches through the wet room blowing away demons into splashes of ash with his comically unwieldy cross-shotgun. It’s filmed wonderfully with dark hues and is a great idea; however, it’s a bit of a rip-off of the opening sequence in the first Blade.

This seems to be a repeated sentiment in Lawrence’s direction. He has a sharp visual eye and several camera angles come from odd yet exotic places, but his film is borrowing so heavily from so many other films. What you’re left with is the impression of a stylish if very derivative looking action film. One exception is when Lawrence shows us glimpses of the blistering burnt orange world of Hell. It seems Hell is an exact model resemblance of Earth, only with the fire, brimstone, and crawling demons with their heads sliced open (there is a scary level beneath the surface where we witness a sea of people being tortured). The second or third time we traveled to Hell, I began to wonder what my house would look like and the logistics of upkeep for the homeowner in Hell. Surely the heating bills wouldn’t be the same.

Constantine is funny, frustrating, confusing, gorgeous, and just plain insane in the ole membrane. The film exhibits a rare and engaging form of insanity that may glue audience eyeballs to the screen to see what happens next. I’ve seen Constantine twice (don’t ask why) and even though I knew all the weird plot turns I still found myself getting an enjoyable contact buzz from the film. Who knows how long such a novelty can sustain itself, though. Comic book fans, especially those with a spiritual bent, should get a kick out of Constantine as will anyone else searching for a pristine example of how wonderfully out of control Hollywood moviemaking can be. Sometimes in a good way.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Elektra (2005)

January is typically a cinematic wasteland. It’s the place where films go to die. So imagine my surprise when I heard that Elektra, a comic book movie built around a nimble sai-spinning assassin, was going to be released in January 2005. I remember at one time there were plans for a summer release, which means Elektra had fallen from the very top to the very bottom of expectation. After viewing Elektra for myself I can perfectly understand why anyone would want to dump this clunker.

Elektra (Jennifer Garner) is a feared assassin-for-hire (she even has an agent for her hits). She’s been brought back to life by a powerful sensei, but has ignored a possible higher calling to make her money killing folks. Apparently she is the mythical warrior that will keep the balance between good and evil, or something or other. Her next hit ends up being a nice guy (Goran Visnjic) and his teenage daughter. Elektra doesn’t have the heart to kill them, so she joins them and all three run away from the really bad guys, an ancient group known as The Hand.

Elektra doesn’t really bare comparison to other comic book films because Elektra feels more like a video game. In true video game fashion, I’ll numerically list the likenesses:

1) There is no such thing as characterization, just definition by super power. One assassin is super strong, another can suck the life out of creatures, and a third has the amazing ability to have his tattoos come to poorly rendered life (lucky this guy doesn’t have butterflies and fairies). With a powerful lack of imagination, these assassins are called Stone, Pestilence, and Tattoo (not the Russian girls who make out with each other. That’s Tatu.).

2) The only sense of a story is pitting Elektra against one bad guy after another. There aren’t character arcs and subplots so much as there are end stage boss battles. It gets really repetitious.

3) The film seems like it’s bending over backwards to get character special moves into the story. With 1995’s Mortal Kombat, the writers, and I use that term in the loosest possible sense, had to work a story that included popular video game moves. Working so hard to include something so trivial and arbitrary really ties the storyteller’s hands. Elektra feels like the film would rather try and include some character’s special move rather than formulate a cogent storyline.

4) Once our assassins are vanquished they burst into clouds of yellow dust. I am not kidding. When they die they explode into clouds of mustard-hued gas. Just like in a video game, once you kill the bad guy they disappear with no necessary cleanup. It’s really thoughtful of them.

5) A second player can jump in at any time! In Elektra, different characters magically appear whenever it’s convenient and I?m not even talking about the super assassins.

6) Just like in a video game, you get an extra life! I don?t know why the producers of Elektra didn’t just make a prequel. With a sequel they have to work around their heroine’s untimely death in 2003’s Daredevil, and so we are introduced to the idea that a warrior of great mind can bring people back from the dead. So if Elektra dies (again) she can just be brought back to life. This whole idea practically eliminates any sense of danger and consequence.

So little of Elektra makes any kind of sense. Characters make rash choices and surprise appearances. The villains are a bland, cliched crop from some back order of ancient kung-fu brotherhoods. The plot is mysteriously oblique and has the frustrating habit of using cheats to get around logical roadblocks. About halfway through Elektra I gave up shrugging my shoulders and rolling my eyes. There is no definition on character limits, so anything can happen, and when it does it’s usually very stupid.

Even worse is how dreadfully dull Elektra can be. The last two acts are compromised of nothing but a long, boring chase scene. The action sequences are brief and unoriginal, which include the thousandth inclusion of a hedge maze. There’s one moment where Elektra is battling in a room that has sheets flying all around for no good reason. It’s visually reminiscent of a Where’s Waldo? page. Take that for what you will.

The film is brisk, clocking in at just 90 minutes, but you don’t care about the characters because 20 minutes is spent establishing them, and the remaining 70 is spent watching them run.

The only redeeming quality of Elektra is its star. Garner is suited for the running, jumping movies, but she also has great acting chops behind her square jaw and impeccable physique. She casually generates intensity but also has a light, humorous touch. It doesn’t hurt that she looks fabulous in a red bustier. Her character is given OCD but then this plot is dropped entirely. Without the appeal of Garner, Elektra would simply be Catwoman.

Elektra is a flat comic adaptation that plays more like a video game, and just like in real life, watching a video game is no fun at all. Things happen, characters appear, people explode into clouds of yellow dust, and it’s all a bunch of uninteresting, half-baked nonsense. Elektra is frustrating, labored, ridiculous, and empty of thought and enjoyment. Why should I pay to watch Garner kick ass when I can watch Alias on TV and see Garner kick ass for free? And the plots of Alias are brazenly complex, fun, and high-spirited. I care about the people and events on Alias. With Elektra, the only thing I cared about was when the film was going to be over.

Nate’s Grade: D

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