Written By Zak Attack
A dramatic journey through the dreck we all know and love
Why Did I Watch This?
Oh! I watched Constantine for a multitude of reasons. It’s like it was planned or something….
First, Why Did I Watch This? is about 60% through Schlocktoberfest. In case you don’t typically consume media during the month of October, Schlocktoberfest is one of many portmanteaus out there attempting to cash-in on the weeks leading up to Halloween. Constantine isn’t quite horror, but since this is Action A Go Go we’re going for titles that are at least tangentially horror-related.
Secondly, Keanu Reeves (ooh, just realized this is the second Keanu Reeves flick we’re discussing in this feature) is set to premiere John Wick this weekend. Trailers are looking fantastic and so are early critical reads.
But most importantly, the upcoming TV Show based on the DC Comics character is also premiering this weekend. Trailers for that look quite promising as well. Consider me cautiously optimistic.
How Did I Watch It?
I actually saw Constantine in the theatre opening weekend. I had not yet been introduced to the comic character at this point, but was aware of some of the gripes that the character should always be British, blonde, and otherwise not Keanu Reeves.
For this write-up I rewatched it after a long day at work. It’s available on DVD via a fairly suspect deal. At this point I have been exposed to the character in Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing as well as New 52’s Justice League Dark. I still need to catch up with Delano and Ennis’ respective runs on Hellblazer.
Regardless of the source material, movies should stand on their own… but just wanted to give everyone an idea of where I’m coming from.
What Did I Watch?
A title card comes on the screen: “He who possesses The Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in his hands”. A man is digging in the ground and finds a long knife. He walks away from his hole and is violently struck by a car. Instead of harming him, the car crumbles around his now invincible frame. I guess that knife was the spear of destiny?
Enter: John Constantine as played by Keanu Reeves. He is carrying out an exorcism, but it goes awry when he realizes this isn’t just any ol’ run-o-tha-mill exorcism. A demon is using a young girl to try and enter the mortal world. Constantine’s troubled by the idea of a demon pulling such a brazen act; it’s supposed to be impossible due to a truce between God and Satan.
A third thread is introduced: The deeply religious police officer, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), wakes up from a nightmare showing the mysterious suicide of her twin sister, Isabel (duh… also Rachel Weisz), in a mental ward. The next day proves that the dream is real, but Angela doesn’t believe it was a suicide.
Dodson and Constantine’s stark differences are made abundantly clear when they first meet and decide to work together in order to figure out what’s going on. They first encounter each other at a library where Dodson is pleading a priest to give her twin a Catholic burial despite the suicidal nature of her death, while Constantine is aggressively pushing the androgynous angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) to explain how demons from Hell could possibly be present on Earth. Dodson eventually hires Constantine to help her solve the mystery of her sister’s death. Along the way, we also meet a slew of Keanu Reeves’ enemies and associates in chatty cab driver Chas (Shia LaBeouf), aptly-named alcoholic priest Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), arcane knowledge specialist Beeman (Max Baker), villainous demon Balthazar (the absolutely wretched Gavin Rossdale), and antagonistic witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou).
In true neo-noir style, the abundance of secondary characters provides the necessary clues for Constantine to figure out what evil plot the forces of darkness have in the wings. It seems that if someone has the Spear of Destiny, Heavenly intervention, and a psychic human (a kidnapped Angela Dodson… which explains her also psychic sister’s sacrifice) they can bring forth Lucifer’s son Mammon to envelop the world in darkness. There is a bunch of supernatural, CGI action and it’s finally revealed that the villain putting forth this terrible plan is the angel Gabriel (explaining that Heavenly intervention part)! This only makes sense to the audience because, at this point, the respected Tilda Swinton has only been in a single scene. Constantine calls on none other than Lucifer himself (Peter Stormare), who is inclined to save the day since the rise of Mammon would usurp the Dark Prince’s power.
While the movie was serviceable by itself, it definitely didn’t feel like the John Constantine comic readers are familiar with. Very little of the blame concerning Constantine’s bastardization in film can be placed on Keanu Reeves’ shoulders. Much like Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, the character is written as a Marlowe-like loner who has given up on himself due to a dark past. Unfortunately, the manner in which they do this is by having Constantine be kind of mean to everyone and refer to demons as ‘assholes’ (ooooh, we got a tough guy over here). The only place where the paranormal detective’s almost childish attitude feels the least bit compelling is at the end when his soul is being pulled into Heaven and he’s flicking off Lucifer as he gently floats through the sky. See, one of the reasons Constantine is so bitter is because his demonic visions got him sent to various mental institutions as a child. When he tried to escape by committing suicide, he was revived after a short time in Hell and was guaranteed to be shut out of the pearly gates (due to Catholic dogma) unless he committed a purely selfless act. It’s mentioned several times that his is the only soul Lucifer would come in person to collect, so Constantine completes this selfish act by committing suicide again (twist!) in order to entreat the Lord of Darkness for help. I just want to point out that this “sacrifice” is totally undeserving of any emotional conflict because…
A. Constantine doesn’t particularly want to live, he just doesn’t want to go to Hell
B. He is told early in the film that he has lung cancer and only has a few months to live anyway.
So between the rules of entrance to Heaven and Mammon’s convoluted plot, the film spends about 65% of its running time on exposition. In addition to all that, the movie goes out of its way to explain: the process of drowning Angela in order to unlock her repressed psychic powers (in an admittedly intense and perfectly edited scene), the secret 17th chapter of Corinthians, and a special cross that’s melted down to make demon-exploding bullets.
The overall look of Constantine is absolutely beautiful. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Dangerous Liaisons, The Bear, and Big Fish among others) really stands out as the auteur of the film here. Each scene has a unique color palette and sharp clear lighting that further emphasizes what lurks in the shadows. The vibrant yet subtle yellows, greens, blues, tans, and grays fully evoke a paranormal world lurking right under the surface of our own. Heavy use of wide-angle lens’, reverse shots, and unsettlingly static compositions go even further in eliciting an overall sense of unease.
To complement the great camerawork, the special effects are pretty well done… despite an over-reliance on CGI. When Gabriel’s wings pop out and Constantine fights a man made entirely out of locusts (outside of one good look we get of the locust guy’s face), I could almost swear they were practical props. Part of this is due to some great work by the visual effects companies involved (although there is no defending the obviously green screen vision of Hell), but also the artistic vision of these monsters/locations/effects are incredibly striking. The half sawed-off heads of the demons is an especially disturbing image while an extreme close-up of a fly crawling out of Beeman’s eyeball is probably going to stick with me for a long time.
Frankly, the pacing is a mess. Constantine teases a malicious figure behind all the happenings of the film, but only does so twice during the two hour running time. By the time it’s revealed to be Tilda Swinton (who, as mentioned, was only featured in one short scene at the very beginning), the twist lands with a pretty substantial thud. And Gabriel’s not the only character treated poorly. Chas is introduced as a plucky sidekick, but disappears for 52 minutes in the middle (yes, I counted). Papa Midnite and Beeman are supposed to be helping John Constantine throughout, but they only show up for two scenes each. The only villain with a face is Gavin Rossdale’s Balthazar… who, besides making every wrong acting decision possible, is introduced early on and then easily dispatched towards the end. The only characters that don’t get short shrift are Constantine, Angela Dodson, and Hennessy.
Most noirs have the protagonist bounce back and forth between different threats and allies until all the pieces are put together. However, most of these threats and allies show up for at least, I don’t know, three scenes each so we’ll be able to understand the characters and feel a pull towards the actual mystery at the heart of the story. Instead, Constantine highlights a bunch of characters and neat-looking setpieces in order to make sure the audience doesn’t care about anything. Case in point: Towards the end Constantine and Chas enter into an epic showdown with a large group of demons who are guarding Angela. There a few close-ups of demons until one shown is clearly Michelle Monaghan. Now, she may have not been a huge star in 2005, but it seems that credits in Boston Public and The Bourne Supremacy would get her a better part than an extra. As it turns out, the deleted scenes show that Monaghan had initially played Constantine’s demonic girlfriend. However, even in the deleted scenes she is simply introduced, shows up fleetingly towards the middle, and then is forgotten by the end of the film.
Director Francis Lawrence attempts to overstuff so many characters and ideas into the running time that the details that matter to story (the growing threat of conflict, the forward momentum in the ultimate mystery, the deux ex machina-like nature of all the secondary characters) is given nearly no time to develop. The entire second act seems be overly concerned with John Constantine’s struggle with not being allowed into Heaven. While this is addressed in the resolution of the major conflict, it technically has nothing to do with the actual plot until that climactic moment. I’d call it “foreshadowing” if it wasn’t mentioned at least 6 times in 40 minutes. The only thing that character detail serves to accomplish before the end is serve as filler to explain why Keanu is acting so grizzled. Meanwhile, the apocalyptic threat hanging over everyone’s heads is completely unexplained.
Was It Worth Watching?
Not particularly. Constantine isn’t quite a total mess, but if not for the relationship to a cult comic book character I don’t believe anyone would remember it at all. Keanu Reeves is serviceable in the part, while Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare are having an absolute blast in their commanding, underutilized performances. Actually, since I didn’t mention this earlier, this movie probably contains one of my favorite, scenery-chewing Stormare performance of all time. And that’s high praise indeed since his career is full of those.
Contrary to the very similar Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, Constantine definitely has more enthusiasm, better acting (even Shia LeBaouf is less obnoxious here than Sam Huntington was in that film), and more clear stakes. However the bloated plot and heavy exposition really threaten to derail the entire viewing experience. It’s a “check out half of it on HBO” movie as opposed to a “add to my collection” movie.
We at Action A Go Go just hope the show pulls off the sardonic charm and gallows humor of the British John Constantine, instead of the angry self-loathing of the American version.
Schlocktoberfest Part 1: KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park
Schlocktoberfest Part 2: Q: The Winged Serpent
Schlocktoberfest Part 3: Bloodlust!
Schlocktoberfest Part 4: You just read it!
Schlocktoberfest Part 5: Dollman Vs. Demonic Toys
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
The views and commentaries expressed on these pages are solely those of their authors and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by ActionAGoGo.com.
All images courtesy of Village Roadshow Pictures