Constantine turns the tables on the comic book adaptations of late that are all show and no substance. Here we have a film that is willing to dress itself up with an interesting and exciting story while at the same time still retaining the incredible special effects that we have all come to know and love from this genre.
John Constantine (Reeves) has one heck of a job. While the sun is out he is busy removing “soldier demons” from unsuspecting Earthlings who turn ugly real fast once they are taken over. By night he shoots the talk with “half-breeds,” which are mixes of humans and either angels or demons. They dwell in the depths of Los Angeles, and can either be nice or be the enemy.
One day Constantine is approached by Isabel Dodson (Weisz), a devout Catholic woman whose twin sister, Angela (also played by Weisz) has seemingly just committed suicide (the biggest no-no of all in Catholicism, punishable by Hell) by jumping off a building. Isabel simply does not believe that her sister could have done such a thing, so she calls upon John to cross over to Hell to see if her sister is there. This will settle once and for all whether or not she took the big plunge. Run-ins with half-breeds, demons, angels, and the darkest corners of our planet ensue.
Along the way Constantine is sermoned by the androgynous archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), teaches his protege (LaBeouf) the ropes, gets some advice from “the other side” from intimidating Midnite (Hounsou), and blows away plenty of half-breed scum. The film’s climax is absolutely dominated by Peter Stormare as Satan. I will say no more on this topic because Stormare chews scenery to the likes of which I haven’t seen since Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, playing, you guessed it, Satan.
This is just the big story, however. The screenplay gives a solid back story as to who Constantine really is. We learn that he puts most chain smokers to shame, and he’s paying the price as he has been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was clinically dead for several minutes as a child, and as a result has the power to cross over to Hell. He’s a man that doesn’t feel he has a whole lot to live for, but that will quickly change.
As one would expect from such a comic book adaptation, the entire film is peppered with amazing and disturbing visuals. The movie’s vision of Hell is similar to the one we all have stored in the back of our minds, with nonstop windstorms, fire, and despicable creatures. Constantine walks about, once he has crossed over, as if he is no stranger to the place and struts along as if he knows he will end up there sometime permanently.
Constantine doesn’t make the mistake that so many other comic book films have made recently. Those expecting balls-to-the-wall action, violence, and gore will be sorely disappointed in what Constantine has to offer. This is a film that puts style and vision ahead of mindless violence, and in the end it reaps the rewards.
The biggest misstep that Constantine takes is in its lack of development of the half-breeds. It’s established early on that they are good or bad, but this is such a thought-provoking and interesting idea that I really would have liked it if the film had chosen to delve deeper. The same goes for the underdevelopment of the character of Gabriel, who all but vanishes for the middle section of the film.
It seems like there is always scrutiny when Keanu Reeves stars in a film these days. I would even venture to guess that the man sleeps in black leather pajamas. But let’s drop the bias and negativity and cut to the chase here: Reeves is good in this role. Constantine, as depicted in the movie, is a sullen, dry-humored individual. He doesn’t express himself much, resists any kind of affection from everyone, and is just a soul who is trying to buy his way into heaven by getting rid of the scum on Earth before lung cancer gets the best of him. This is not a dynamically demanding role. Reeves scuffs his way through most of the scenes, but wins us over mainly because he has an “I don’t care!” attitude about him. Nothing, no matter how outrageous, surprises him, and Reeves echoes this confidence.
The supporting cast is also quite good. Rachel Weisz plays a dual role as Isabel and the departed twin sister Angela. She is strapped with a bit of a “damsel-in-distress” role, but Weisz is a very capable actress. Up-and-coming Shia LaBeouf (see him in The Battle Of Shaker Heights if given the chance) is a source of comic relief in the film, although the entire screenplay is laced with it. I’m sure we’ll see more of him should Constantine become a franchise. Tilda Swinton, Djimon Hounsou, and Peter Stormare are clearly all having a blast with their respective extreme characters.
Director Francis Lawrence, in his first feature film, avoids the mistakes of so many other music video-to-film directors by actually letting the story play out at a reasonable pace. He is very competent when it comes to mood, camera angles, and shooting for special effects. The adapted screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello is nicely executed, complete with some notable one-liners and a well-paced story.
Constantine is bound to divide the comic book masses. The film takes its time developing and moving along, but that is the very reason that it works so much better than other recent offerings. Some will take issue with the casting of Reeves, some will be bored, some with be just plain confused. But at the end of the day, this is the biggest surprise of 2005 so far.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 121 Minutes
Rating: R for violence and demonic images.
Theatrical Release: February 18, 2005
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Kevin Brodbin & Frank A. Cappello. Based upon the comic book Hellblazer by Jamie Delano & Garth Ennis.
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince