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Raise a little Hell



Francis Lawrence, USA, 2005

Rating: 3.7


Posted: February 17, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Despite -- or, more accurately, because of -- a long appreciation for the Vertigo/DC comics series Hellblazer, this writer walked into Constantine, Francis Lawrence’s film adaptation of the book, with low expectations. Forget low -- they were non-existent. At best, I thought I’d enjoy the candy I’d smuggled into the theater in my jacket pocket.

The reasons for this antipathy were legion, and foremost among them, of course, was Keanu Reeves. Now, Reeves isn’t quite the wooden plank so many viewers and critics paint him to be: There are roles in which his ramrod stiffness, his monotone delivery and his blank-stare emotional range are not only sufficient but entirely appropriate, even perfect. But when you consider that as written in the comics, John Constantine is a British, blond-haired former punk-rocker with a Sahara-dry wit and a penchant for betraying those close to him -- or, at best, inadvertently causing their grisly deaths -- well, it doesn’t take Stephen Hawking to figure out that Neo isn’t the best (or even the hundredth-best) fit for the anti-heroic role.

But, as it turns out, Reeves’ casting isn’t an issue, because except for all but a few token similarities, Constantine is even more divorced from Hellblazer than, say, the Buffy TV series was from the original Kristy Swanson film. (In fact, Buffy’s James Marsden, who played the punk-ish Brit vampire Spike, would have made a credible Constantine.) To say that Constantine is “loosely based” on the comic is like saying that Adaptation is “pretty faithful” to Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. Compared to this, Simon Birch was a word-for-word re-enactment of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. And once you reconcile yourself to that, Constantine -- Keanu and all -- is a surprisingly enjoyable diversion.

It’s best, in fact, to view Constantine on a kind of Charlie Kaufman level -- as a film about a guy who just happens to share the same name and general occupation as a little-known comic book character. This John Constantine is a dark-haired freelance exorcist of sorts, who lives in Los Angeles instead of London, and happens to be battling inner, metaphorical demons as well as actual ones. Like the Constantine of comics, he chain-smokes, and (in a nod to the Garth Ennis Dangerous Habits storyline) has developed lung cancer, assuring that he’s on the fast-track to Hell, where he’s being eagerly awaited by Lucifer and all those demons he’s thwarted over the years.

Anyway, the story: For no good reason that we can ever see, given his generally foul mood and walled-off, tough-guy demeanor, Constantine begins helping a police detective named Angela (Rachel Weisz, of The Mummy, er, fame) investigating the mysterious death (supposedly by suicide) of her twin sister. That’s just the way these movies work: First he’s brushing her off (and being kind of a dick about it), the next thing you know he’s soaking his feet in her apartment as part of some daft ritual to propel himself into Hell (which looks an awful lot like regular Los Angeles, except in a vague, post-apocalyptic, video-game kind of way -- dig those flame-red skies!) to look for her sister.

Long story short: Apparently, Angela and her sister are pawns in a devilish scheme to unleash a load of demons into our world, the end result of which would be that the son of the Devil himself would walk the earth, dogs and cats would live together, etc., etc. The scheme also involves the Spear of Destiny -- more of a large dagger than a spear, actually -- which, according to apocrypha, is what actually killed Jesus on the cross, so we occasionally cut to scenes of some scruffy-looking vagrant, who has stumbled upon the Spear, slowly and inexorably making his way toward our heroes -- uh, protagonists.

All of this is pretty much standard-issue supernatural-action-thriller fare. It’s heavy on plot mechanics (sometimes ploddingly so), imbued with a dark-brown palette, and features a few scenes too many of Constantine and his put-upon, self-appointed “apprentice” (Shia LaBeouf) spouting cryptic Latin mumbo-jumbo in way-too-serious tones. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. (One thing that certainly doesn’t work: The charmless Gavin Rossdale -- that’s Mr. Stefani to you -- as an allegedly slick half-breed demon named Balthazar; Rossdale aims for subtle menace but comes up with annoying smarm, so that his inevitable ass-beating, subdued though it is, is one of the film’s highlights.)

Admittedly, there are some agreeable touches as well: For one, there’s a pretty nifty-looking nightclub filled (to no apparent explanation) with otherworldly types, run by a neutral power-broker of sorts called Papa Midnite (the gifted Djimon Hounsou, picking up a check). Also, Constantine relies on eccentric helpers including a twitchy priest (nicely played by the strong character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince) and a go-to guy for paraphernalia (sort of a supernatural Q). And there are some enjoyable CGI set pieces, including one of a demon cobbled together from all manner of bugs and insects (shot from some interesting and effective angles, including gutter-level).

But two things distinguish Constantine from its competition, and one of those is its attention to its supernatural trappings. Most movies or TV shows that throw demons around willy-nilly (Buffy, for one, or Hellboy) pay surprisingly short shrift to the raft of theological questions their existence would raise -- they have no trouble positing the existence of demons, but the closest they get to acknowledging the existence of God (any God) is the occasional angel and lots of holy water and crosses.

Even for an agnostic reviewer, this has always seemed odd. So it’s refreshing that Constantine proves so comfortable weaving both the Devil and his former boss into its plot. (Kudos to Tilda Swinton, as a creepy, androgynous archangel Gabriel, and especially Peter Stormare, who turns in a charmingly over-the-top performance as Lucifer.) And one should note that the Catholic stance toward suicide plays a major part in the story, as well -- pretty heavy stuff for a supernatural-tinged popcorn thriller.

The second thing that makes Constantine better than one expects is its sense of humor. Although Reeves dreadfully overplays Constantine in the early going (he’s always snapping open his Zippo to light another cigarette with all the narcissistic flair of a stoner executing a well-practiced Pete Townshend windmill crash at an air-guitar competition), he loosens up considerably at the end, and even provides a genuine laugh during a scene in which Midnite attempts to pray over him. LaBeouf mines his comic-sidekick role for all its appropriate payoffs, as well. (And then there’s Stormare, whose performance recalls Geoffrey Rush’s loose-limbed, go-with-it turn in Pirates of the Caribbean.)

Constantine slips in a few surprisingly organic chuckles, which helps leaven a mood that often teeters on the brink of Gothic/noir overload. And in a film with so many factors potentially weighing against it, that counts for an awful lot. In the end, one enjoys Constantine, and even finds oneself recommending it, almost in spite of oneself. Even the “real” John Constantine might end up enjoying it.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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