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Neo's bogus journey
A film review of CONSTANTINE by Camus
 
"I don't really think that the studio understands this movie completely…"
Director Francis Lawrence interviewed in issue 322 of Starburst

 

That can only be a good thing, no?

Keanu Reeves slipped on to my radar playing a Californian airhead with delusions of world peace via air-guitar licks. Inside a time travelling phone booth (an idea blatantly stolen from a TV series as old as I am about to make a big comeback this Easter) he and his partner went back to wonderfully funny moments in the past. Destined by some future council to be very important to the peace of the world, the two boys needed real historical help with their school history presentation. Reeves fitted Ted 'Theodore' Logan like made to measure mittens. It was initially difficult to imagine the actor in any other role, so convincing was he at empty headedness, laid back physicality and smiley optimism. The movie actually affected me (I was working in the US at the time) and could not stop 'dude'ing this and 'dude'ing that for weeks. It only took the turtle character of 'Crush' in Finding Nemo seconds to take me straight back to California in 1989 where I infuriated my house mates with my woeful impressions of Los Angeles' 'valley speak'. There was something very sweet about this pair (Bill and Ted for the uninitiated) and the sequel in which Death joins them while they try to save the world (again) is also a hoot. You have to love an American movie aimed at teens that riffs off von Sydow's playing chess for his very soul against the Grim Reaper in The Seventh Seal. In Bill and Ted's case, they get to choose the game. For their immortal souls, Bill and Ted take on Death at (oh joy) Twister™!

After a string of movies that required more acting muscle than he had brought to bear, Reeves then surfed a massive wave in 1999 (my God, was it really six years ago?) and earned his place as the bona fide action star in the movie that rewrote the action movie rules. He looked good. He looked great. He suited black well, was whippet thin and his angular physicality and lithe movement played very well in The Matrix's world of PVC, faux digital dopplegangers and designer shades. All he had to do was act mildly confused and try to beat the shit out of Lawrence Fishburne. Yes, there was all that special effects work but acting talent? It's been written, not least in this site's pages, that movie stars do not have to be great actors so on that level, Keanu Reeves is a damn fine… movie star. Yes, his actual acting is not up there with, say a Nicole Kidman or the iconic seventies and eighties' grand slam performances of De Niro nor is it chasing the coat tails of Tom Hanks too hard.

But can you see how convincing Hanks would be as The Matrix's Neo, even in his younger days? Tchah. No. Keanu 'fits' movies that call out for his specific brand of laconic, iconic cool and I'm happy to say (with some reservations), that Constantine fits him very snugly indeed. I will not stop to bemoan what was lost in translation. It's lost and there's nothing die hard fans of the very blond Brit who is the original John Constantine in the Hellblazer comic books can do or say to make it ain't so. If you spend a great deal of money on a movie, you have to 'streamline' the character and concept to stand a chance of making back what, in essence, is a huge gamble on a prototype. To stand a chance (goes the blockbuster mentality) of making a sizeable return on a sizeable investment, you need your elements in place. A northern accented Brit was not going to cut it with Joe Schmoe in Kansas (with apologies to Joe himself, nothing personal). So Keanu slips on Constantine's Reservoir Dogs' cozzie and lo and behold, a man with issues and you actually believe it.

Playing the cool card is not hard for Keanu. After a puzzling (but intriguing) opening involving a few south of the border labourers and a significant blade we get to see our chain-smoking hero despatch a demon, a full blown CG exorcism which, I admit, was pretty exciting. I was impressed with the narrative unveiling itself very assuredly despite the number of different threads it begins with (at least five sub-plot/main plot strands start out with very little explanation - just the way I like it).

John Constantine is a troubled man. He has lung cancer (the aggressive kind - as opposed to the pussy cat kind?) and is either sucking in smoke or exhaling blood all throughout the movie. He is also aware of the 'deal' struck between God and Satan - a balance between the forces of good and evil. His gift and curse is that he is able to 'see' those demons on Earth that are half way between the different planes of existence. Seeing these demons as a child prompted a suicide attempt that literally gave him a way to hell. In a throwaway conversation with what turns out to be the angel Gabriel (played beguilingly by Tilda Swinton and we love the wings), the basis on which the movie is built is sketched in. Apparently Constantine does not need to believe in God and Satan because he knows them to exist (a nice twist on the need for faith based characters in a religious context). He also knows that he will be dead within a year and will go back to hell; suicides (according to the ludicrous Catholic doctrine) are destined for hell, no questions asked. Is there work he can do on Earth before his descent to appease God and get him strumming amidst the clouds? My first thought upon hearing of his illness was how does a character realistically get better from lung cancer? After all, this is a Hollywood movie and has potential franchise smeared in pixels all over it. This was answered at the end of the movie in one of those moments that may (just may) make sense to some overpaid screenwriter with an exec breathing hard down his/her neck but in hindsight, it's a cheap and unworthy gimmick to reset the hero's body back to a 'franchisable' state.

Constantine has a sidekick, a demon hunting wannabe, who is employed as his driver. Cast as a very young man, his purpose seems only to be kept in the dark, a non-character who serves no useful function. Constantine also has his 'Giles', a man who knows things that would normally have him committed and can point our hero in the right direction. Hollywood movie narrative commandments mean that he won't last the 120 minutes but it is those who see the truth and dare to tell that end up the worst served in Constantine's world. Isobel, a mental patient who has been seeing demons since she was a child, throws herself off a roof. Her twin sister, Angela (both parts played by The Mummy's Rachel Weisz) is a cop in denial of her own abilities to see demons. She teams up with Keanu to find out 'the truth' about the suicide and along the way we are treated to vistas of hell as Neo (oops, sorry, John) drops in almost as casually as a wave of a hand. Hell in Constantine is essentially L.A. (OK so far) overlaid with a layer of sulphur, a 'ring-on-Frodo's-Finger' heat haze world where John Constantine is the only natural creature. CG demons crawl and writhe in torment nodding to Heironymous Bosch very vigorously. The Hell scenes are quite atmospheric and it's clear that these pivotal sequences had a lot of thought layered into them. It's only the filmmakers' version of heaven that's truly risible. Briefly glimpsed at the climax, there's a building or two but mostly God's realm is a cloudy sky and bright light. It's an absurd cliché, a shame given the thought gone into 'down under'.

Since Buffy, the demon on Earth has been well represented. Each Hell demon in Constantine is a wraith of grey, naked flesh pockmarked and smeared with (one assumes) burn marks. They are ugly as sin (now that phrase at last makes sense) and of course, anything that ugly in L.A. (or Hell A.) must be evil. Noteworthy though is the only moment a CG creation has made me jump even though it was probably the loud shriek on the soundtrack. The Earth-based demons are dressed in skin, scoured off them by Holy Water (is there nothing that stuff can't do?) and seem to have no special powers as even Keanu can beat the shit out of them sans wires and sans Kung Fu speed-learned into his cortex (and with a nasty smoker's cough).

The reason everyone in the know is so touchy about the balance between good and evil being disrupted takes us back to the Mexican labourer at the start of the movie. The blade he finds - which imbues him with starling superhuman ability - is in fact the spear responsible for the actual death of Christ. It's going to be used nefariously (as all spears that killed Christ must be) and bring forth Satan's spawn. The twists at the climax, which I will not reveal, are nothing truly surprising but the justification of the principal antagonist's actions seem to be 'the worse I make things, the better people have to be to face up to them therefore I am making people better…' Now that bullshit may work in Cloud land but from where Constantine sits (bleeding), it's a different story and before you know it Satan himself has turned up (seems he's looking forward to tormenting Keanu) and not only is he all dressed in white (all the good guys wear black so he has to be sartorially opposite) it turns out it's Peter (the quiet murderous one in Fargo) Stormare! It's a casting coup and almost works (giving the head demon a human form and that particular one at that).

Needless to say, Constantine upsets His plans (what? Is it only God who gets the 'start-with-a-capital' treatment?), earns his redemption and life returns to normal sans infected lungs. If only it were that easy. Constantine is a fair film, not great, not terrible but fair. It's inventive, visually captivating and performed with some gusto. But I can't see it going the franchise distance, well, not in the US. There are too many sandwiched between the coasts who believe in all this stuff. After all it's only John Constantine who knows it's all true…

Constantine

USA 2005
121 mins
director
Francis Lawrence
producers
Lorenzo DiBonaventura
Akiva Goldsman
Benjamin Melniker
Lauren Shuler Donner
Erwin Stoff
Michael E. Uslan
screenplay
Kevin Brodbin
Frank Cappello
from the comic book Hellblazer by
Jamie Delano
Garth Ennis
cinematography
Philippe Rousselot
editor
Wayne Wahrman
music
Klaus Badelt
Brian Tyler
production design
Naomi Shohan
starring
Keanu Reeves
Rachel Weisz
Shia LaBeouf
Djimon Hounsou
Max Baker
Tilda Swinton
Peter Stormare
review posted
11 April 2005