If you’re a comic-book geek, as a lot of my friends are, then this apparent travesty of the DC/Vertigo comic will probably annoy you. I say apparent travesty because I haven’t read a comic book since they cost 12 cents. Then again, even if I was familiar with the comic, I doubt I’d be bothered by how the Constantine character fares in the film adaptation. I refuse on principle to get worked up about a literary form that, regardless of its level of pretense, recognizes “argh” as a word.
However, if you’re not too concerned about burning issues like how many Batmen can dance on the head of a pin, and if you don’t hate Keanu Reeves simply because he’s Keanu Reeves, then you just might enjoy Keanustantine … er, Constantine.
OK, the movie is too long and pretty silly, and it doesn’t seem to know how seriously it takes itself (as a result, it doesn’t know how seriously it wants you to take it). But it’s also a good bit of fun, at least most of the time.
Reeves stars as John Constantine (not the Constantine of Constantinople, more like the Constantine of Istanbull). What we have here is a chain-smoking, cancer-ridden hero who is doomed to hell, thanks to a suicide that didn’t quite take. Still, he seems to think he can buy his way into heaven by battling demons. The original character is a blonde Brit, I’m told, not a dark-haired denizen of Los Angeles. Whether or not the change hurts the story, I don’t know, but the results are a bit like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, only with demons. And while that’s not terrifically original, neither is it bad.
The central story concerns attempts to let demons walk the earth, with a little assist from the Spear of Destiny– the weapon that killed Christ on the cross. This interesting artifact has been unearthed in Mexico (where it was found wrapped in a Nazi flag), giving its discoverer superhero powers and a seriously anti-social attitude.
The mechanics of the plot — heavy though they are — aren’t the raison d’etre for this kind of movie. All that matters is that these gnarly hellions are trying to get into our world, and it’s up to Keanu to stop them. He tries drawing the attention of the angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton at her Orlando androgynous best) to the events, only to get the party line about how he’s damned for his suicide — or, as Gabriel somewhat inelegantly puts it, “You’re f***ed.” (That may seem a little rough for an angel, but give Gabe a break; this is his third movie in a year, and it must be disconcerting to appear first in the guise of Hugh Jackman, then as Jonathan Price, and now as Tilda Swinton.)
Swinton, by the way, has, in comments about the movie, drawn a parallel between the events depicted here and those taking place in the world today, saying that using the pretense of doing “God’s work” to advance another agenda is not accidental. That may be true, but Constantine is a little too goofy to work as a serious attack on current politics.
Speaking of goofy, the film also boasts some impressive visions of hell, though personally I was surprised to find that hell looks like a palm tree-festooned L.A. junkyard as seen through a red filter. Having as yet no personal knowledge of the place, I’m willing to accept this interpretation.
Similarly, we have a campy Peter Stormare as Lucifer in a white tropical suit (Keanu calls him Lou). His style of dress seems to have taken some critics by surprise; they have apparently forgotten Victor Buono’s identically garbed Satan in The Evil, where he referred to hero Richard Crenna as an “insignificant speck of vomit,” a moment that makes Constantine seem positively decorous by comparison.
All this is fun in its way, but the film has some serious failings. The jokey Beeman character (Max Bacon), who supplies Keanu with his demon-fighting effects, is the same Q-like refugee from James Bond that we’ve seen in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing, and he’s worn out his welcome. There’s also too much time spent on developing a relationship between Keanu and Rachel Weisz, who plays an L.A. cop.
The relationship’s not bad when it works as exposition, but does anyone really care about a romantic subplot in a movie like this? The time could have been better spent on the film’s more unusual characters, especially Djimon Hounsou’s “Papa Midnight,” the former witchdoctor who refuses to take sides on the good-and-evil front.
But all said, Constantine is not a bad horror thriller of its type. And no one can watch the scene where Keanu responds to Midnight’s attempts to pray for him and come away claiming that this is Reeves in “whoa, dude” mode. Look beyond the cheese, and you might see that it’s time to accept Reeves as an actor of some wit and intelligence. Rated R for violence and demonic images.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke