Pulp science fiction
Los Angeles is a morally jaundiced cityscape in which good and evil battle for the control of human souls. Highway 101 is a wreckage-strewn roadway in hell. And Keanu Reeves plays a renegade exorcist, executioner and Neo-noir savior who is more robotic than stoic. No surprises here so far. Typecasting and scuffed deadpan cynicism abound. But Constantine, a new film based on characters from the Hellblazer graphic novels of DC Comics/Vertigo, also has several effective narrative hooks and surprises up its sleeve.
Constantine is a muscular convulsion of theological and metaphysical chest thumping. It is messy and bloated. Its last act is hard to penetrate and not fully satisfying. And the half-breed demons and angels walking the planet in human flesh here, much like the aliens of Men in Black, feel much too familiar to shoulder the weight of an entire movie. Nonetheless, veteran music-video director Francis Lawrence, writers Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, and such technical wizards as cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It and Interview with the Vampire) crank up the action and a dualistic view of the universe here into an intriguing, eye-popping and sometimes downright startling slice of pulp science fiction.
John Constantine (Reeves) has literally been to hell and back. He has the ability to see half-breed angels and demons that live among us. But this power is more of a curse than a gift. It tormented him so much that he attempted suicide. He was resuscitated after spending what felt like an eternal two minutes in the fire-and-brimstone realm of hell. Now, during his second spin on Earth, he hopes to buy salvation for taking his own life by vaporizing earthbound minions of evil with his customized shotgun and other ancient mystical weapons and accessories.
Terminal lung cancer gives Constantine’s quest for redemption a sense of urgency. So does a rare exorcism case in which a soldier demon attempts to cross over into the world of humans. This is against certain ground rules that God and Satan have agreed upon, in which humans can be influenced but not contacted by otherworldly forces. Constantine then crosses paths with police detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), who is investigating the apparent suicide of her own sister. Together they unravel an apparent apocalyptic conspiracy involving the power of the Spear of Destiny (the weapon used to pierce the side of Jesus while he was nailed to the cross), which has been missing since World War II.
Constantine, the movie, wants us to think about whether God has a plan for us all or whether we are just part of a wager between cosmic superpowers in which there are only two possible prizes for participation: our salvation (which requires faith without proof) or our damnation (which requires only one of numerous possible sins). It talks of the difference between being finger puppets and gateways for the devil and being able to find one’s noble self only in the face of horror. It is about self-sacrifice, free will, hypocrisy, morality vs. ethics, and the elusive ability of “listening to the ether.”
Reeves is bearable as the hard-boiled, chain-smoking antihero who coughs up blood and irreverence in the same spasm and whose patrolling of the blurred line between parallel dimensions is driven more by mercenary than benevolent intention. Shia LaBeouf (of Holes) is a weak link in the cast as his taxi-driving chauffeur and wannabe apprentice, Chas Chandler, who doubles as a walking paranormal encyclopedia and comic relief.
The strong performances of the film include that of Reeves’ Chain Reaction co-star, Weisz, who breathes some much-needed fire into her role as the cop who gets a bathtub baptism into the dark side. Tilda Swinton makes a provocative unisex angel Gabriel in a freshly pressed business suit. Djimon Hounsou (In America) is excellent as the former faith healer Midnite, who runs his nightclub as a sort of demilitarized zone for paranormal party animals. UK rocker Gavin Rossdale is perfectly oily as the evil Balthazar, and Pruitt Taylor Vince walks the fine line between creepy and sympathetic as the sweaty, haunted Father Hennessy.
Constantine the Great was the Roman emperor who consolidated the power of the Christian church. He was called both a true Christian and an exploiter of the relatively new religion for his own political purposes. Constantine here is also called onto the carpet for his suspect agenda. Whether his is great or not is left for us to ponder—and maybe even use to measure the truth of our own commitments.