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-
Posted on February 28, 2005, in 2005 Movies and tagged action, alan moore, angels, comic book, demons, francis lawrence, keanu reeves, peter stormare, rachel weisz, religion, shia labeouf, supernatural, thriller, tilda swinton, twins. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.