Take one part THE EXORCIST, add two parts CAPTIAN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER and sprinkle in a touch of END OF DAYS and you have some idea of what to expect from CONSTANTINE. I say "some" because the film is so strange in its approach that it is its own animal, one that will thrill some and alienate others.
It is based on the comic book HELLBLAZER, which I have not read. So I cannot comment on the various changes that were supposedly made, how they effect the film or whether or not the creators should be tarred and feathered. Really, get a grip people. One change I can comment on is the Americanization of the comic. The original character John Constantine is from Liverpool, but when Keanu Reeves became attached to the project, the story was changed so that the character now fails from sunny California. While others bemoan this, I would say this shows acute foresight on the part of the filmmakers. Have you heard Keanu Reeves' horrid accent in BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA? Trust me, you don't want him to be from Liverpool.
The character himself is a man who has been either blessed or cursed from birth to see people as they really are. Which means, he is well aware that angels and demons walk among us. They adhere to a rule known as "the balance" which means that neither good nor evil can directly interfere with humankind. They can only influence people, a whisper here, a suggestion there. When a demon upsets this balance by actively seeking to harm another human, Constantine breaks out an archaic array of weaponry and rituals to "deport" them back to hell.
Constantine is not such a happy camper himself. When he was a teenager, he was still trying to come to terms with the visions he was having. Believing he was insane, his parents put him through a tortuous series of tests and shock therapy. Finally believing that he truly had gone mad, Constantine tried to kill himself. Unfortunately, all suicides automatically go straight to hell. Even though Constantine was revived, now knows he wasn't insane, and has regretted his actions ever since, he's still pretty much screwed because he was a suicide. Now, he tries to constantly redeem himself and avoid being sent back to the very place he had escaped from, the same place he has sent so many before. As he says at one point, "What would you do if you knew that you were sentenced to a prison where most of the inmates were sent there by you?"
It's a fascinating dilemma, and one that CONSTANTINE paints well. Also of note is the fact that Constantine now finds himself faces with his own mortality and of course what lies beyond. This crisis is not brought on by angels or demons but by his own lifestyle and the natural order of things. It's something that most action heroes never find themselves faced with and hence, it's both ironic and refreshing.
The character of John Constantine is a great one. The plot he finds himself in could frankly use some polish. In the heart of Mexico, a peasant uncovers the Spear of Destiny. Legend has it this was the spear that was thrust into Jesus' side when he was crucified on Golgotha. It was collected by the Nazis, Hitler being a real occult nut, but has been lost ever since. What the Nazis were doing in Mexico is never explained. The peasant takes hold of the spear and immediately finds himself imbued with a demonic presence. He begins a long walk north.
Meanwhile, a mental patient is hearing voices too. For a reason that remains unexplained until later, she throws herself from the hospital rooftop. The jumper's sister, Angela (Rachel Weisz - THE MUMMY, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES) refuses to believe that her sister would kill herself. She knows the sister suffered from the same visions Constantine is afflicted with and seeks his reluctant guidance. Meanwhile, Angela herself has dealt with odd premonitions. As a police officer, she has killed several people in the line of duty, always knowing exactly where to aim but never knowing why.
What follows is a long and convoluted plot involving angels and archangels and all the company of heaven... and hell, for that matter. Lots of things are thrown into this one, including a Bible from hell which is more complete than any on earth (Guess they don't take that list bit from Revelations too seriously), a neutral witch doctor who runs a bar where violence against demons is not allowed (sounds familiar), demons and killer bugs killing everyone connected with Constantine and the coming of the Antichrist.
Here at the Express, no one has seen fit to give us too many advance screenings. So, when I shell out my cash and see a theatrical film, I try to put my thoughts down as soon as possible, just to be timely. This time, however, I put the review off. The reason being is that it's hard to really pull my thoughts on CONSTANTINE together. I was on the fence with this film for a long time - so much is intriguing and yet so much just didn't involve me at all.
Here is what works. Number one is the performances. Not all are great but most are good enough to hold our attention. Doing exceptionally well once again is Weisz, an actress who only occasionally gets the credit she deserves. Her confession in the film in which she talks about her estrangement from her twin sister is heartbreaking. Reeves does a fine job in the lead. At first, it may be hard to distinguish his John Constantine from his Neo character in the MATRIX trilogy. There is one big difference. Whereas Neo started out with nothing and grew in his idealism, with Constantine it is just the opposite. He knows all about God and the Devil, but has seen too much in this world to be enamored with either one of them. As someone points out, "You don't believe, you know and that's not the same thing."
There's a boat load of character actors in the film as well and most of them work out. Djimon Hounsou delivers another strong performance. Hounsou is typically great when in dramatic roles, most notably IN AMERICA, my favorite film of 2003. But GLADIATOR notwithstanding, he is typically out of place in a big actioner. To anyone who would argue this, I have two words for you: BIKER BOYZ. Thankfully, Hounsou is able to indulge both a good action role and a good dramatic one as a witch doctor who knows everything and runs a bar that caters to both sides of the good and evil struggle. Think of him as a voodoo Huggy Bear. He's a man who has tried to avoid any allegiances, not realizing that the time has come to finally pick a side.
When Constantine's young and beleaguered sidekick showed up on screen, my eyes just about rolled into the back of my head. But Shia LaBeouf (THE BATTLE FOR SHAKER HEIGHTS, CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE) is nowhere near as annoying as you'd expect. Gavin Rossdale, who the members of my generation may remember as the lead singer of Bush, creates a truly sleazy demon in the form of the oily Balthazar. In fact, he's quite likeable and never hogs the scenery the way most sidekicks do in films like this. One of my favorite character actors, Pruitt Taylor Vince is given a fine but all too brief role as a priest who can sense the hidden nature behind things. Tilda Swinton (ADAPTATION, THE DEEP END) is excellent as an androgynous Gabriel.
The performances would be nothing without the character's, which is CONSTANTINE's strongest point. I have already covered some of the depth explored by the actors and I will not linger on it anymore here. Suffice to say that CONSTANTINE is refreshing in that there are no one-dimensional characters. The film could never be labeled a "dumb" horror film precisely because the writers Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Capello (who have nothing worthwhile in their previous screen credits) took the time to flesh out the characters. Director Frank Lawrence then knew to take the time to work with the actors in bringing those very characters to light.
But while I love the characters and most of the actors that inhabit them, the plot itself is Swiss cheese. The problem with this film is not that it is complex. No, I say bring on the complex screenplays, as I am sick and tired of patronizing bullshit. The problem is that while Brodbin and Capella create fine characters, they cannot juggle all of the plot elements in a cohesive manner. Nothing really gels in CONSTANTINE. The plot points just seem piled on top of each other like some crazy Jenga puzzle.
It's a film that is forced to indulge in five little endings before the final resolution. None of this would be a problem if the script simply flowed better. The plot is not incomprehensible like ALONE IN THE DARK, but it is also not as smooth as it could have been with a few more drafts. Some instances require much more information, Angela's background on the police force for example. Some require a touch less, like the constant brooding of John Constantine.
Don't believe anyone who says otherwise, CONSTANTINE is not a light film. It takes itself very seriously, too seriously at times. There is very little comic relief. Everything is very straight-laced. Personally, even with everything that is thrown into the film, it doesn't seem like much is present that livens the film up. And no, the occasional swarm of bugs does not count. In the end, CONSTANTINE is a film that is chock full of information, but does far too little to truly endear itself to the viewer.
Directing duties are handled by Francis Lawrence, a first-timer with some notable music video experience as a background. Since he has handled artists as varied as the talented Sarah McLachlan and the egregious Britney Spears, he knows all about the conflict between good and evil. Unlike many of his ilk, Lawrence has a refreshing directing style. He favors something that is rare in Hollywood, the art of the long take. Lawrence seems to know that it is not a requirement to keep people's attention simply by changing the camera angle every 1.5 seconds. If you've got a low attention span, that's your own damn problem and it's time to get over it. For the dramatic moments, it works. I wish I could say he keeps to this school of thought throughout the film but he doesn't. For the CG-laden sequences, his camera moves from a stationary position and does so many gymnastics, it could make certain viewer's seasick. The worst instances of this are sequences that actually take place in Hell. While it is an imaginative setting, really more a dystopian version of Earth more than anything, Lawrence whirls the camera around too much to keep things interesting. The CGI in the film is surprisingly unconvincing and hurts some of the more intense sequences.
CONSTANTINE takes a very Old Testament view on things. I would say it follows a high Catholic teaching structure but even that may be too liberal. Too bad this also causes some contradictions in the storyline. For instance, CONSTANTINE suggests one thing more than any other, which is the power of self and its impact on your soul. Suicide is an automatic mortal sin and will shoot you straight to Hell. On the other hand, selflessness puts the needs of others before yourself and thus wins you safe passage to heaven. But one of the events that triggers the plot is Isabel's suicide. Without spoiling anything, I will say it seems to be the most selfless act, but this is not reflected in her fate in CONSTANTINE.
Many people who felt burned by last year's VAN HELSING will probably be more pleased with CONSTANTINE. And I guess I too will recommend the film. It's a film where one's memories are mostly fond, which suggests it might even improve on repeat viewings. Still, is a lot to be done and the final product leaves much to be desired. John Constantine is the kind of meaty, gritty and all-around interesting character who could have a successful and indefinite franchise ahead of him. This is obviously what the producers have in mind. But first, they are going to have to inject some much-needed like into the storyline.