For a film about the mighty eternal forces of good and evil doing battle on Earth’s (or contemporary LA’s) soil, Francis Lawrence’s CONSTANTINE never really makes you feel as much is at stake. Perhaps it’s my fault. While I consider myself an intelligent enough person, I will admit to feeling perplexed in contemplating the fuzzy storylines that coarse through the film’s 121 minutes. Maybe in having not read “Hellblazer,” the comic novel on which the film is based, I missed out on cues and points that only faithful readers were privy to; I was merely an outsider given a glance into hardcore fanboy-dem. But if so, isn’t it the filmmaker’s responsibility to bring me, the graphic novel zero, into the club?
What I can flesh out is that John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is an exorcist/ detective who has been cursed with supernatural powers since childhood. At one point, in his teenaged years, it led him to an attempted suicide and a rare return ticket from hell. In an effort to get back in heaven’s good graces – time is running short, he’s terminally stricken with lung cancer – Constantine methodically helps the possessed free their inner demons in an effort to quell his own. A cynical detective, Angela (Rachel Weisz), seeks out Constantine’s services when her twin sister, Isabel (Weisz), commits suicide amidst odd circumstances. Together, the two get caught up in a much larger battle that involves, among other things, the Sword of Destiny (damn Nazis!), the migrant worker who stumbles and wields said sword, questionable angels, alcoholic priests, a bowling alley pin monkey, the son of Satan, Satan himself (Peter Storemare, in an odd turn), and a rock star playing Balthazar (Bush’s Gavin Rossdale), a conduit of hell on Earth. That’s quite a buffet considering the film could be viewed as the most expensive anti-smoking ad ever produced. Truth!
Besides its hazy plot, CONSTANTINE rests its (un)success on a couple of things. One is Reeves feeding his inner-Steve Decker, to play a weary, chain-smoking, noir-ish, beaten-down detective. It’s a role that the actor is a bit too pretty and young looking (he is 40, though!) to pull off. Secondly, Lawrence, a music video veteran (aren’t they all these days?) making his feature film debut, has an eye for some interesting visuals and shots; immediately, the breath-taking shot of Isabel’s initial suicide comes to mind. However, the CGI demons and hellscapes feel too forcibly scary to truly terrorize. In this current pop-culture landscape, something organic or less-is-more, tends to raise the hairs on my back; not yet another ogre-ishly ugly demon. Lastly, the film hinges on the fact that both heaven and hell cast minions (“half-lings”) into our “middle” stage that can influence us mere mortals by only “whispering” sweet goods and evils in our ears; not to mention reliance upon general hokey religious symbolism (look at the character’s names above) and dogma. Please. If that’s what it takes to maintain cosmic and religious balance, I’m moving to Canada.
So in the final analysis, I’m not so sure anymore that it’s my fault for not “getting” or particularly “liking” CONSTANTINE. Heck, I never read any of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (don’t shoot me!) but enjoyed the hell (no pun intended) out of the films. What I am sure of it is that like the film’s protagonist, CONSTANTINE dips into Hades, aspires to join the heavens, but ultimately will lie, forever forgotten, in cinematic Purgatory.