Director : Francis Lawrence
Screenplay : Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello (story by Kevin Brodbin; based on the graphic novel Hellblazer by Jamie Delano & Garth Ennis)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Keanu Reeves (John Constantine), Rachel Weisz (Angela Dodson / Isabel Dodson), Shia LaBeouf (Chas Chandler), Djimon Hounsou (Midnite), Max Baker (Beeman), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Father Hennessy), Gavin Rossdale (Balthazar), Tilda Swinton (Gabriel), Peter Stormare (Satan), Jesse Ramirez (Scavenger)
You’d think that any film that casts Peter Stormare in a mordantly funny cameo as Satan in a dandy white suit would be pretty good, but Constantine proves otherwise. Based on the Hellblazer graphic novel series, Constantine is often visually stunning, but it’s a narrative and thematic mess; it plays more like a bunch of vaguely realized ideas strung haphazardly together than it does as a coherent story with rhythm and purpose.
Keanu Reeves, mixing the skinny-black-tie look of Reservoir Dogs with his Matrix trench-coat, stars as the haunted, world-weary John Constantine, one of only a few human beings who are cognizant of the fact that God and Satan are waging a private battle on Earth with people as the pawns. As the film explains, God and Satan made a wager about who could control the world, and both sides work their advantage through suggestion, but no direct contact. Both sides use middle men -- half-angels and half-demons -- who walk the earth and try to influence people one way or the other. God’s side is represented by the androgynous Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), while Satan’s side is represented by Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale), a smarmy Brit-type. The fact that neither is particularly appealing is the first clue to the film’s suggestion that the difference between cosmic good and evil is a fine line.
Constantine is an interstitial figure in this largely invisible celestial battle, as he ostensibly works for the good by sending wayward demons back to hell, but is himself damned because he tried to and, for a few moments, successfully committed suicide as a teenager. Thus, his good works are ultimately in his own self-interest as he tries to win back God’s favor so he can get into heaven, which is right around the corner since he has an advanced case of lung cancer as a result of vicious 20-year nicotine habit.
So, the film has an intriguing, if somewhat belabored, idea as its backbone, but it never finds anything coherent or exciting to do with it. Constantine ends up helping a police officer named Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), whose identical twin committed suicide by leaping from the roof of the mental institution in which she was confined. Angela is convinced that her sister would never commit suicide, but Constantine shows her otherwise by -- what else? -- personally traveling to hell to see if the sister is there. Hell, by the way, is pictured for the most part in muddy, blurry computer-generated imagery as Los Angeles caught in the fire of a nonstop nuclear explosion. However, there is one truly disturbing shot as the camera drops below hell’s surface to take in a landscape of writhing souls that is truly Dante-esque.
Constantine is aided by Chas (Shia LaBeouf), a misplaced teenage sidekick who exists so closely to the margins of the story that you suspect all his best scenes wound up on the cutting room floor, and Beeman (Max Baker), who lives the backroom of a bowling alley and gathers supernatural weapons for Constantine, which range from a flamethrower of “Dragon’s Breath” to a box with a screech beetle that apparently drives demons crazy. When Constantine gets really desperate for help, he goes to Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), a former witch doctor who now dresses like a blaxploitation pimp and runs a red-lit supernatural club populated by the denizens of both heaven and hell.
The story’s long-windedness and lack of excitement is made up somewhat by music-video-turned-feature director Francis Lawrence’s inky, moody visuals, which are something along the lines of film noir goes to hell. The film is exceedingly, almost entrancingly dark, and it’s punctuated with moments of bizarre and intriguing imagery, especially a wide shot of a doomed man walking down a road and cattle on either side dropping dead as he walks by. Things get really outré once Gabriel’s wings get burned off to ugly nubs and Stormare arrives on the scene as Satan to collect Constantine once and for all. But, by this point so late in the game, the film has lost most of its interest, and the audience will likely join it in receding into murky ambivalence.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2004 Warner Bros.