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Constantine (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 18 February 2005
“Constantine” is based on characters from the DC Comics/Vertigo comic books. If you’re familiar with them, you’re more likely to enjoy the movie. If you’re not—well, you’d be wise to bring along your favorite divinity student or, perhaps, your friendly neighborhood Satanist, if that’s what your neighborhood is like. The script by Kevin Brodbin (“The Glimmer Man”) and Frank Capello (“Timeline,’ “Suburban Commando”) is clotted with occult terminology and Catholic religious lore. Dramatically, it’s unfocussed and evasive; we don’t even know what the title character, played by Keanu Reeves, is up to for almost half the movie.

With “Constantine,” director Francis Lawrence moves from rock videos to feature films; he probably should move back. His actors seem to be adrift, and he is more interested—much more—in making things look “cool” than in telling a coherent story. But coherent storytelling is exactly what “Constantine” needed most seriously. Lawrence and, presumably, his screenwriters undoubtedly felt they were approaching the material obliquely, letting the audience find its way into the story and the characters. The trouble is that approach works best when the essential elements of the setting are already known to the audience; it doesn’t work when everything about the environment through which the characters move is anything but traditional.

Over the course of the movie, we gradually learn that the heavy-smoking John Constantine could see the angels and demons who live among us disguised as ordinary people. We never quite learn why they live among us. Upon his death, Constantine went straight to Hell for two minutes—two minutes of Earth time, that is; to him, his torment seemed to go on forever. Back on Earth, alive again, Constantine has become a kind of private eye with his targets being demons who upset the “balance” that our universe is supposedly maintaining. We never know quite how he sends them back to Hell, or what he does if angels are transgressing. He doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart; he’s doing to try to make it possible for him to finally enter Heaven. But, the production notes say, the odds are against him.

As the movie opens, we see a Mexican find a spear head wrapped in a Nazi flag. (Nazis are cool, you know.) It immediately makes him invulnerable—a car demolishes itself against his body—and have a deep yearning to move to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, in L.A., Constantine performs a swift, crude exorcism on a young woman, trapping the snarling demon within her in a mirror, which (of course) spectacularly shatters. He tells his priest buddy, Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who’s seen better—and happier—days that demons seem to be trying to enter our world, which would upset this important balance.
Elsewhere, a young woman (Rachel Weisz) leaps to her death from atop a hospital, but we also see her having a nightmare about this. Confusing, yes, but that’s okay—it’s a set of twins. The surviving one is Angela Dodson (yes, Angela), an LAPD detective. She wants to find out why her sister committed suicide.

Naturally, her path crosses that of the sardonic, weary Constantine, and they ultimately join forces, though they don’t lock lips. At first, she’s naturally disbelieving, but soon realizes that Constantine is the real deal. He has a sidekick, Chaz (Shia LaBeouf), who really really wants to be a demon-hunter like Constantine. At a nightclub for “half-breeds” (half human, half demon/angel), Constantine consults with the even cooler Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), who refuses to take sides in the secret war between the heavenly and the hellish. Constantine also consults with the angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, looking as androgynous as she did in “Orlando”), but what their meeting portends is murky. She has cool wings. So is Constantine’s encounter with sleek demon Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale), who favors pin-striped suits, which are always cool unless worn by fat guys.

Once all the characters have been introduced, the director kind of shakes it all up, tossing in bursts of special effects. Constantine wrestles with a demon made of cockroaches, crabs and millipedes. Constantine goes to Hell, populated by skinny demons with scooped-out skulls, and which looks a lot like Los Angeles after a nearby nuclear strike: all smashed cars, wrecked buildings, and a loud orange glow.

Meanwhile, the Mexican draws nearer. He strolls through a herd of cows, which all drop dead as he passes, although people don’t seem to mind his proximity. We know he’s carrying the Spear of Destiny, which we learn, very late, is what really killed Christ when it was thrust into his side by a Roman soldier. And you thought it was the Crucifixion.

Constantine lives above a bowling alley in what seems to be downtown Los Angeles, although the movie has less of a flavor of Los Angeles than any other feature set there that I’ve seen recently. He has yet another assistant (Max Baker)—who lives in the bowling alley--who’s scientific, or something—you can tell because he wears glasses. This guy knows occult/religious weapon technology, and here I didn’t even think that the occult and religions even NEEDED weapon technology. He has swell things like a screech beetle from Amityville and a Roman candle-like tube that emits blazing dragon’s breath. Later, Constantine acquires a sort of repeating shotgun with a circular magazine that fires holy bullets, capable of disintegrating demons.

Not only does the movie fail to clearly establish Constantine’s past and present, but it runs out of steam about halfway through. The dialogue is occasionally very good, and about as often puzzling and hard to understand. Constantine has a little speech about Angela’s relationship to her twin that’s intelligent and on the nose—too bad more of the film isn’t like that.

Reeves is as uneven as the movie. He’s a good fit with the wry, sub-Chandler dialogue and looks cool in his black suit and narrow tie. For a while, he adopts a kind of Eastwoodian whisper, but that fades fast. The trouble is that he cannot involve us in Constantine’s struggles; he’s an anti-hero, we’re told, but whether he wants to or not, he’s doing God’s work. Philip Marlowe bravely went down these same dark streets, a knight without honor, someone who knew the difference between good and evil and chose to work for good, if not necessarily for the law. Constantine, as presented here, is selfish and uncaring for most of the movie; he wants to save his soul, and doesn’t seem to give a good goddamn about the troubles of anyone else—except insofar as they help him in his own quest. He does show glimmerings of feelings at times, but the movie would have worked better had he clearly had those feelings, but worked at repressing them.

Rachel Weisz, from “The Mummy” and its sequel, is tough and resolute, but here, at least, she’s not especially attractive. Shia LaBeouf is supposed to be impish and clever but while he’s clearly capable of that kind of thing, the script lets him down. We never have a clear idea what Vince’s Father Hennessy is up to, not even when he’s killed—why does he rush around a convenience store trying but failing to pour liquids into himself, and then expire with his mouth full of water? The story takes us several places that remain opaque mysteries, such as where we first see the angel Gabriel. And what’s up with Gabriel, anyway? Good, evil? What gives?

Peter Stormare turns up near the end as the Devil himself, here called Lucifer, in a white suit with filthy pants cuffs. As usual, the Devil gets the best lines—but they’re not especially good “best” lines. Stormare, however, makes the most of what he’s given, and brings a lot of energy to the movie when it needs it the most.

Technically, the film is above average, though the color scheme becomes wearisome after a while. It’s all set in the dank under-underworld, both in Los Angeles and in Hell, and cold, steely greens and flame-hot oranges predominate. The effects, both cinematic and makeup, are excellent, perhaps a little too flamboyant to be convincing, but in keeping with the style of the comic book series the movie is based on.

“Constantine” is not terrible by any means, but it’s far short of what it could have been. The first hour is involving, but hampered by the scant, weak explanations. The pace is ragged, and just when it should be building to a climax, the movie stumbles; it becomes less interesting, less involving just when you should be engrossed by how the story is going to work out. Since just what the story is remains unclear (but does involve the birth of Lucifer’s son), the movie cannot maintain its grip.

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