Constantine (2005)R

CapeCapeHalf a tent

The bass player from Dogstar, Keanu Reeves, plays John Constantine, irreverent supernatural detective. Only in the film version, he’s not “irreverent”, he’s just lacking in true faith. Which ends up just coming across neither as admirable independence nor as a tragic character flaw, but just as a rather nonbelievable plot gimmick. How can somebody who knows that Heaven and Hell are real, and has it explained to him in the clearest possible terms how to choose heaven, still clings to a strange childish conviction that he can get into heaven through violence? It just doesn’t make sense for a character who is not otherwise into any form of massive denial.

What would make him “irreverent” would be a sense of humor, as in the sample panel above from the source comic, Hellblazer. (Which is, of all things, a spinoff of Swamp Thing, dreamed up by none other than Alan Moore of Watchmen fame.) This movie could have used a couple of laughs, Chester. In fact, it might in all seriousness have been a better film if they had rewritten it as a comedy. Like Ivan Reitman’s Evolution, which started out as a serious science fiction story.

The movie has way too many clichés and Buffy-isms to be taken as seriously as it tries to present itself. At this point, who can take ideas such as fighting demons with amulets and Latin incantations with a completely straight face? Who can buy any more that Catholic dogma and medieval books of magic are the authoritative source on demonology? The most effective moments are when they depart from the expected in this area... like when a demon has him pinned, and he reaches inside his coat for a special weapon, and it’s not holy water, it’s not a cross, it’s a set of brass knuckles. (Inscribed with crucifixes on the working face.) Most of the time, the rule is “expect the expected.”

Five or ten years earlier, a film like this would have been a special effects extravaganza spectacular, but at this point the level of effects-work here is routine. They do make most of it look pretty real. But the design is nothing to email home about. Their vision of Hell is way too comic-booky, and their glimpse of Heaven hardly seems like much of a contrast to it. And you never really get much sense that one is good and the other is bad; their visits to hell never really show suffering, and the demons on Earth almost never show evil, as opposed to mere hostility. Manifestations of Heavenly good are even more absent. No wonder Richard Roeper compared this film to “a giant game of Battleship” between God and Satan — it plays like a sports match between teams you don’t know in a game you’re not a fan of, like say Spain vs. Portugal for the European Jai Alai Cup: the action is interesting but you’re not particularly invested in one side winning. When Constantine fights a demon, you don’t really root for him, you just watch because it’s kind of a cool fight.

Acting? Once in a long while Keanu is capable of an impressive acting performance, but in nine movies out of ten he’s as wooden a leading man as Hollywood has ever produced... and naturally, this movie is one of the nine, not The One. (What else did you expect?) He’s about as ligninous here as in the Matrix sequels. In fact, this may be worse — my guess is that what he’s going for is classic noir, and he’s failing at it. And weirdly, it almost sounds sometimes like he’s mimicking Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith. But in the end, he’s kind of believable... as a character who just happens to be naturally wooden. In the rare scene where he does try for a laugh, his cellulose content is really obvious; if they had made it more of a comedy they definitely would have needed someone else.

...Or would they? On second thought, with the right kind of humor, he might make a perfect vehicle for deadpan jokes. But with the ones they’ve got, he’s generally failing.

(Speaking of Buffy, some have said that the ideal actor to play Constantine would have been James Marsters. I’m inclined to agree. Assuming you couldn’t afford Daniel Craig.)

Rachel Weisz as his client is largely wasted. She should have been in a better movie. I wish she’d done Hellboy and Selma Blair had done this.

Most of the supporting cast is decent enough, though some of the sidekick roles seemed quite carelessly written. In some cases the nature of their preexisting relationship with Constantine is unclear to the point of utter inscrutability. Some of them meet grisly fates, and maybe those fates are meaningful to fans of the comic, but in the film standing on its own, they just leave you with a shrug. In general, a lot of plot points in the movie seem to have gotten there because they came from some checklist loosely derived from the source comic, rather than because they form part of a coherent self-contained story.

But Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel rocks, and Peter Stormare as Satan is an inspired choice — one of those acting moments that somehow works ten times better than it ought to on paper. And ya know what? For all the lameness and confusion and poor acting that pervades the setup, the payoff is kinda terrific. The final showdown, where the representatives of the heavenly and hellish factions meet face to face... for me, it’s a blast. Everything that wasn’t working in the earlier going starts to click. I might even say the movie redeems itself, which is ironic because of the explicitly Christlike elements that naturally come into play, which I normally would dismiss as hack writing.

As entertainment, the film averages out to good enough. When I first saw it in the theater, I was depressed over a relationship issue, and I forgot about that for two hours. Whatever its shortcomings, in the end I found it an okay enough B movie. (As long as I’m bringing up personal experience, I might as well mention that I chose Easter Sunday to watch this on.) And unexpectedly, I then found myself having an itch to watch it again, almost as if it were a decent film. Seeing it again recently, I found the bad acting even worse than it seemed before, yet I enjoyed the film more thoroughly. This movie has unexpected staying power.