Constantine (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Rarely has the question "What the hell?" been more appropriate. An uneven amalgamation of the brilliant and the preposterous, Constantine left me by turns intrigued, confused, and wary. The recipe calls for some ingredients that are compelling, others that are audacious, and others that are downright maddening. With a bold, dynamic visual style that fuses film noir elements with traditional horror motifs, Constantine can be considered many things, but dull is not amongst them. This is not a timid film, yet it's not an entirely successful one, either.

There's an inherent danger in telling a story about angels, devils, God, and Lucifer in that it's very easy to lose a sizable portion of the audience. There's a reason why authors not named Dante shy away from this subject. Some will see it as sacrilegious. Others will see it as silly. The suspension of disbelief curve is steep, and it becomes steeper when the movie throws in elements of black magic and occult philosophy. One would think that matters couldn't get more clear-cut than in a battle between the forces of heaven and the minions of hell. But Constantine finds a way to turn everything a murky shade of gray. Good and evil, it seems, aren't as absolute as we might like to believe.

John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a reluctant hero. Cursed to be able to see through the guises that normally hide angelic and demonic beings from human perception, Constantine is aware that the battle between heaven and hell isn't some distant, unfathomable struggle. It is being played out in the here-and-now, with the souls of human beings as its currency. In his youth, Constantine was overwhelmed by his visions, and tried to take his own life. He was sent back, and has been trying to atone for his suicide and buy his way into heaven by destroying demons. It isn't working, though. Constantine lacks faith, as the angelic Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) constantly reminds him. God's messenger isn't the only one to torment the bitter protagonist. The unsavory Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale) delights in the news that Constantine has terminal lung cancer.

Something wicked this way comes. Satan's son is plotting a cross-over into the material plane in violation of every established rule. Aided by a Los Angeles cop, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), who can also see the damned, Constantine prepares to set himself opposite the greatest evil this planet has known. And, when an expected ally turns out to be involved in the conspiracy, he is forced to seek aid from the most unlikely of sources - the Prince of Darkness himself (Peter Stormare, without horns or other prosthetics).

Saving the world is a thankless job. Just ask Constantine, although he's looking for redemption, not gratitude. He figures that if he scores enough points for heaven, God will relent and grant him absolution for his unpardonable sin. (For those who don't know Catholic doctrine, suicide = a direct, non-refundable ticket to hell. Do not pass limbo. Do not collect 200 indulgences.) Although Satan eventually shows up to banter with Constantine, God stays out of the picture. One senses that if we glimpsed him, he might look like George Burns.

Constantine's core strength lies in its visual presentation. First-time director Francis Lawrence cut his teeth in the music video business, and he brings a lot of imagination to developing a vivid palette. There's almost always something to see, whether it's a hellfire-tinged mirror image of Los Angeles or the hedonistic innards of a nightclub that caters to those of both angelic and demonic persuasion. In fact, the film looks so good that it's almost possible to ignore some of the screenplay's ludicrous turn of events.

Plotting is not one of Constantine's assets. You can't think too much while watching this movie, or the carefully constructed house of cards it erects will come crashing down. The source material is the "Hellblazer" series of graphic novels, and the goal of the screenplay is to replicate the tone and point-of-view of the comic books. In the process, it seems that not all of the background has been shoehorned in. It's hard to say what causes the gaping plot holes marring Constantine's narrative highway, but they are as unavoidable as Gabriel's warped, deluded speech.

Keanu Reeves, who filmed Constantine immediately after being immersed in the Matrix sequels, is in Neo mode. There are superficial differences - Constantine is less likeable and more cynical - but Reeves plays the two as spiritual kinsmen. After all, it took a full movie before Neo came to accept his role as the Chosen One. Rachel Weisz, looking for a good companion piece on her resume for the Mummy flicks, has found it. She lends a dash of class to the proceedings, arguing the case that sometimes good actors can rise above mediocre screenplays. The supporting cast is eclectic: Shia LeBeouf as Constantine's assistant, Djimon Hounsou as the "neutral" club owner, Midnite, Pruitt Taylor Vince as a priest, and Tilda Swinton at her most androgynous as Gabriel.

Constantine will appeal most strongly to those with a penchant for vivid cinematic comic book adaptations. It remains to be seen whether it will find its audience or end up ignored by viewers expecting another installment of The Matrix or a more traditional horror movie.

Constantine (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2005-02-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1