Robin CliffordAngels and demons are spies from Heaven and Hell, living in human shells as half-breeds hoping to influence the human souls their bosses have wagered upon. One teenager, driven to near madness by his ability to recognize these entities, attempts suicide, only to be saved to live with the knowledge of his ultimate fate - Hell. In an attempt to change his destiny, the adult becomes a reluctant fighter for good. His name is John "Constantine."
Apparently, "The Matrix" Trilogy comprised the second of Keanu Reeves' personal triptych of Satan fighting. Along with "The Devil's Advocate," (not to mention a sidebar beating the Grim Reaper at Battleship in the "Bill and Ted" sequel) Reeves once again bears the sins of man for heavenly good, this time with attitude. Fans of the "Hellblazer" comic series may take umbrage with the filmmakers' decision to move the action from London to L.A., but what better substitute for Hell on earth but the City of Angels?
Taking a page from the Exorcist films, "Constantine" begins with the discovery of a powerful relic (the Spear of Destiny, which pierced Jesus' side) in a sun-parched land. The unfortunate Mexican who finds it is instantly dispatched, but his body marches northward, all living things in his path expiring. Guess it's easy to figure out which side holds the goods.
Cut to Constantine, attired in circa 60's black and white, called in to perform an exorcism by Father Hennessey (Pruitt Taylor Vince, "Identity"), a priest too weak to fight. Constantine is startled to find a demon using a young girl not for possession, but as a physical gateway, clearly not abiding by the rules. Then a police detective, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz, "About a Boy" and Keanu's costar in "Chain Reaction"), comes to him for help, convinced that her similarly-gifted twin sister Isabel would never have committed suicide. Constantine rebuffs her, but when her departing figure is followed by flying demons, he races after, thinking Angela may be the key to explain recent events. Just to add to his pressures, John's chain-smoking has just resulted in a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer and God's emissary on earth, the Angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, "Young Adam"), still delights in telling him he cannot buy his way into heaven with self-motivated good deeds.
In addition to Constantine's sleek, black-garbed fight against evil, other parallels to "The Matrix" include parallel worlds, Heaven and Hell existing on the same plane as contemporary L.A. One scene near the film's conclusion seems ripped right out of "The Matrix Revolutions." But there are no 'whoa's' for Keanu this time around and Reeves is up to the jaded, abrupt and bothered character that is Constantine (after "Meet the Fockers," 'A$&hole' is becoming quite the 'in' tag line). He's already proven his athletic ability and Reeves' is a natural smoker, not one of those pretend Hollywood puffers. Weisz is good in her dual role, although it must be said that Isabel is merely an ephemeral diver, no real acting required. A trio of supporting players offer much more juice. Swinton and Stormare ("Fargo") are dynamite as Gabriel and Satan. Swinton is all coy manipulation until circumstances force her to become ingratiating, while Stormare goes the Depp route, giving a weirdly quiet, oddly funny turn as the Devil. His performance has more than a touch of Hannibal Lecter about it. Also strong is Shia LaBeouf ("Holes") as Constantine's 'partner' Chaz, a sidekick chafing at the lowly role he's been trusted with. A driver hasn't been this funny since "Die Hard's" Argyle. Bush front man Gavin Rossdale also has a good time filling out the shoes of Balthazar, a demon who enjoys taunting his nemesis.
It's with some of the other supporting players that screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello fumble, introducing them into the action with no background for the uninitiated. According to the press notes, Midnight (Djimon Nounsou, "In America") is a former friend of John's who runs a nightclub for half-breeds of both persuasions, a neutral playground as it were, but it's only evident between the lines. A later development involving an electric chair is even more murky. Father Hennessey is given short shrift until his well-staged death, but here we're given a conundrum - what we see the man experience isn't suicide, but the aftermath clearly is. Doesn't demonic trickery disqualify the act and how does this reflect on Isabel's situation?
Director Francis Lawrence (Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" video) is handy with visual elements from Naomi Shohan's ("Training Day") 40's flavored production design, with Hell imagined somewhat like the "Terminator's" post nuclear world as if shot through a molten red filter, to special effects creatures and accoutrements (like Gabriel's black(!) wings and a crucifix shotgun). Individual scenes are strikingly accomplished, but Lawrence hasn't defined the story tightly enough. Still, "Constantine" is an impressive directorial debut given the film's large cast and apocalyptic scope. Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot ("Big Fish") plays an important role with his noirish lighting design and Louise Frogley's ("Man on Fire") inventive costumes also add character. Makeup is also accomplished. Besides the obvious transformations, Reeves gradually acquires more and more of a pallor as his times runs out.
"Constantine," for all its individual successes, fails to dazzle as a total experience. It is entertaining on the surface, but its lack of overall focus drains it of emotional punch.
Harboring a “gift” that he never wanted, John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) has the ability to see half-breeds” - angels and demons that walk the earth disguised as humans in a battle for the collective soul of mankind. As a tormented teenager, John tried to take his own life to escape his horrific visions but was brought back to earthly life against his will. Now, he patrols the no-man’s land between Heaven and Hell, sending the minions of the Devil back from whence they came. He hopes that God recognizes his good deeds and forgive him for his mortal sin and offer salvation in “Constantine.”
Based on the DC Comics/Vertigo graphic novel series, Hellblazer, “Constantine” is the high-tech work of first-time feature helmer, Francis Lawrence, who hails from the music video world. His background shows in the bombastically depicted, briskly edited frequent battles between good and evil. John Constantine must face ever more brazen demons from Hell as they ignore the many millennium rules that the forces of Heaven and Hell not participate directly in the war for the soul of man.
Keanu Reeves will definitely take a lot of flak for doing a role that can readily be linked to his role as Neo in “The Matrix” trilogy. As John Constantine, in his severe black trench coat and skinny black tie, there is a middling resemblance to his internationally known Neo. But, Reeves lends a tortured, cynical humanity to his new persona that transcends the similarity to his Matrix character. John is a smart mouthed, capable demon dispatcher that conveys a dark gallows humor that I couldn’t get enough of. Constantine is not, outwardly, a likeable person but Reeves gives him character.
In another story within the story of Constantine and his plight for redemption involves skeptical police detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) who is struggling to understand the apparent suicide of her devoutly Roman Catholic sister, Isabel (also Weisz). Angela can’t believe Isabel would take her own life and seeks out John for help. As she begins to see that there are otherworldly forces fighting for control of man she uses Constantine’s power to find out if Isabel went to Hell.
The weaving of these stories also takes in several subplots. One involves cabbie Chas Kramer (Shia LeBeouf) as John’s wannabe apprentice who drives the demon killer on his rounds to save the earth. Another involves Midnight (Djimon Hounsou), the owner of a club that is neutral territory for the minions of God and the Devil. The supernatural representatives of the Big Guys has Tilda Swinton giving a marvelously androgynous turn as the angel Gabriel while Gavin Rossdale is greasily evil as the Devil’s right hand demon, Balthasar. Peter Stormare seems to take great pleasure with his over the top turn as Satan. Unlike in Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” God never makes an appearance in human form in “Constantine.”
Techs for “Constantine” look like they are straight from the mind of the graphic novels’ creators and rep frequently grandiloquent displays of the ravages of Hell and its hideous inhabitants.
The primary target, with hopes of crossing over to mainstream auds, are the fan boys of the DC Comics originals and the early reactions appear to be very polarized. There is a love-it/hate-it reaction that has no middle ground so it is going to be an interesting box office battle. But, not being a fan of the paperback work, I can only judge “Constantine” on the merits that I hold true. I enjoyed the film and didn’t mind the two-plus hour run time. It could have been shorter but the movie going public will get good value for their dollar. I give it a B-.
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