What to make of a film like Constantine? Taken from the often brilliant and occasionally subversive DC/Vertigo comic book, Hellblazer, the film is a bold mixture of noir, horror and superhero fantasy inspired by everything from The Exorcist to The Matrix. Confused, sprawling and unfocused, one thing Constantine can never be accused of being is boring.
Keanu Reeves stars as John Constantine, a chain-smoking, misanthropic, paranormal investigator who “deports” demons and devils back to hell. Dying from lung cancer and damned for his attempted suicide as a teen, he hopes his crusade against evil will buy him a way back into heaven. As far as heroes go, this one’s got some interesting baggage. Too bad the film spends most of its time on apocalyptic mumbo jumbo and over-the-top CGI effects.
The plot, an uncomfortable jumble of several storylines from the comic book, involves detective Isabel Dodson (Rachel Weisz) and her investigation into the strange suicide of her twin sister. It seems that her sibling’s death is connected to the discovery of the Spear of Destiny (i.e. the spear that killed Jesus) and the birth of the Antichrist. Throw in the archangel Gabriel (a brilliant and all-too-brief Tilda Swinton), a trio of expendable sidekicks and Peter Stormare as a scene-stealing Satan, and you’ve got enough story ideas for three or four interesting films.
Unfortunately, Constantine sacrifices character development and otherworldly suspense for slick action and spectacle. The monsters from hell aren’t very scary and the plot isn’t given any time to breathe. For all its talk of faith, damnation and redemption, the film feels like yet another well-oiled product from the Hollywood entertainment machine.
Where first-time director Francis Lawrence succeeds, however, is in the picture’s stunningly unique visual presentation and breakneck pace. Featuring vividly hellish images and an urban landscape choked with atmosphere, Constantine offers up moments of startling imagination. The film’s style is so brash and vibrant that, until the final act, it’s easy to overlook the half-explained mythology and absurd plot twists. From visions of a fire-consumed Los Angeles, to the foul ambience of a nightclub where angels and demons mix, to the unsettling use of insects, Lawrence and his writers give us a creepy feast of unique sights and sounds. There’s no lack of imagination here, just a dearth of subtlety and restraint.
For many, Constantine will be seen as a fascinating world unto itself. To fans of the comic book, however, the changes to the story will be a bitter pill to swallow. John Constantine was originally conceived as a wickedly amoral anti-hero of working-class British origins. His forays into the supernatural were grounded by human depravity and instances of banal evil. For every mad angel on the rampage, there was a crazed soccer hooligan out to settle a score. The news that Keanu Reeves was cast as the title character elicited predictable howls of protest.
Reeves brings a cool, impersonal manner to his supernatural hero — but he’s still wrong for the part. In taming the script to fit its star’s persona, the screenwriters have gutted John Constantine of his personality. Instead of the delightfully unrepentant bastard of the Hellblazer series, we get a cynical but endearing loner.
Hollywood has a long history of distrusting audiences to accept a complex or ambivalent protagonist. Given the country’s current political climate it probably seemed doubly prudent to portray Constantine as a saint in sinner’s clothing. One wonders what kind of treatment the comic book might have received under the godless secularism of European cinema.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.