February 21, 2005

Devil or Angel? I Can't Make Up My Mind.

by JEREMIAH LEWIS, American Digest Film Editor

DESPERATELY SEEKING TWO HOURS OF AMUSEMENT, I watched Constantine over the weekend. A gravelly, chainsmoking anti-hero epic, Constantine is a reworked American version of the original British Vendetta/DC Comics' Hellblazer series by Alan Moore, whose previous beloved works, From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have received less than extraordinary screen translations. Constantine has a few things going for it.

1). Keanu Reeves. Say what you want about the Lebanese actor's onscreen chops, he's a fun guy to watch. This one's no exception, as he plays the supernatural detective with a "What the hell is your problem?" attitude that seems so very endearing for some reason.

2). A decent script. It isn't perfect, but it shares a similar love for the material as the Spiderman scripts, whilst not needing to get hung up on every single detail from the original comics. It's dark and witty, but plays the basic plot straight.

3). Director Francis Lawrence. Constantine is Lawrence's feature debut, and he's got some sequences that are pretty interesting. Overall, the look of the film is comicbookish, with the right amount of fun to give it a face.

The story is a bit convoluted, and sometimes sacrifices depth for skin-deep plot tanglings. Los

Angeles is the city of smog and epicenter for a conflict between the physical and the spiritual plane. (Who knew?) John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a man damned. He grew up seeing the spiritual dimension of angels and demons. He couldn't cope, so he committed suicide, and for two minutes, resided in Hell. He was revived, and his suicide, a mortal sin, damned him from Heaven and God's presence forever. Ever since then, he's lived the life of a loner, an outsider who dispatches demons who seek to disrupt the "Balance", a standing bet between God and the Devil, with all the souls of mankind at stake. Supernatural beings aren't allowed to physically tip the balance in favour of God or the Devil, but can only influence humans to stray or be saved. The ones that do find themselves at the short end of John Constantine's fuse. His acts of spiritual retribution aren't selfless, though. He figures if he can send enough demons back to hell, God might take him back.

He has a number of supernatural tools at his disposal (holy shotgun, anyone?), is fully qualified to perform exorcisms (including one within the first fifteen minutes that is pure cinematic B-grade fun), and has human contacts who help him track down the supernatural n'er-do-wells, including Beeman (Max Baker), Father Hennessey (Pruitt Taylor Vince), and Constantine's own apprentice Chas Chandler (Shia LeBeouf).

Enter Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), a police detective who thinks that her twin sister Isabel's (also Rachel Weisz) suicide was actually a murder. She employs Constantine to help her track down the killer, but their relationship is rocky. He wants nothing to do with her at first, but soon realizes the forces of darkness are in search of something...or someone. She asks to understand, eventually demanding to be given the gift of spiritual sight that Constantine possesses. Apparently, the only requirement is a bathtub baptism.

Immersing Rachel Weisz in water allows her to see the spirit world, and also allows you to see through her shirt. Still, there's not much titillation here, which may disappoint fanboys who define "sex-starved" by looking up video screen captures of various actresses' cleavage.

This is definitely an effects-driven flick, with lots of visions of hell, demons flying around, halfbreeds morphing from human form to demon and back, angels with very large wingspans, and even Satan himself, played with delicious Felliniesque and sulfuric panache by Peter Stormare. Throw in the androgynous Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel, and a big bad voodoo daddy priest named Midnight (Djimon Hounsou) and you have quite a little updated Miracle Play.

The plot is a wandering thicket of ideas. There's some nonsense about the son of Satan wanting to reign on earth, and using Angela as a conduit from hell. There's loads of alternative theology (whether Protestant or Catholic, you're likely to find fault with some of the film's more lively ideas), though the simple moral of the story, that selfless sacrifice is an act of love and the height of human idealism, is one that most people could share.

Constantine never challenges you much, despite its rather winded theology and sometimes run-of-the mill effects. Whilst it runs a little long and seems at times pointlessly complex, it is too much fun not to enjoy, at least for one viewing. Give the actors and director credit for taking what could have been a sub-standard comic book adaptation and making a classy, if one-viewing, hit.

The power of Christ compels me to give Constantine 3.5 Martinis out of 5.

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at jeremiah.lewis@gmail.com

Posted by Vanderleun at February 21, 2005 11:55 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

"The world behind the world"? Everything green and grimy? A guy who thinks "God is a kid with an ant farm" and doesn't think he's "the one" even though he's been to hell and knows perfectly well what the deal is? Coulda sworn I've seen this before . . .

And how does it always come down to punching, kicking and wrestling? No matter what technology is available, no matter that "there is no spoon," we're punching and kicking? Really?

Posted by: Uncle Mikey at February 22, 2005 8:26 AM