Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan


Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 23, 2005

Directed by Francis Lawrence/Screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Capello/starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Djimon Hounsou, Shia LeBoeuf, Peter Stormare/Warner Bros – Village Roadshow

A chain-smoking nihilist has to prevent demons from taking over the Earth.

This movie is based on a comic book called Hellblazer, and whenever Hollywood makes a movie based on a comic book, the fanboys go ballistic about any changes in the translation from one medium to another. The comic’s hero is British, and they cast Keanu Reeves in the lead. The comic geeks are pissed.

Lucky for me, I haven’t picked up a comic book in years, so I don’t have to have those concerns. As a movie fan, all I care about is whether the adaptation works on the screen. It’s funny, I don’t hear anyone complaining about the casting of Brit Christian Bale as the American superhero Batman. Who cares? Sometimes you just have to let go of things like that. There are greater things in the world to worry about (like whether Veronica Mars gets picked up for a second season…).

Anyone who’s incapable of just “going with it”, I recommend you don’t see this movie. If you’re that hung up on the comic books, stay home and read them. Honestly, you’re probably not going to like Constantine. You won’t enjoy yourself and you will regret spending your time and money on it.

The rest of us, however, will get a pretty cool movie out of it. Not a great movie, but for the wasteland of February… I’ll take it.

John Constantine (Reeves) is a guy in a seriously fucked-up situation. Having attempted suicide at the age of 14 (and briefly succeeding), he’s now unable to be admitted into the kingdom of Heaven upon his death. Unfortunately for him, 20 years of chain-smoking has left him with a serious case of lung cancer. (I don’t know about you, but if I knew for a fact that Hell existed and I was going there, I don’t think I’d do anything that might hurry the process along. But that’s just me. I think smoking is stupid and foolish anyway, so there you have it.)

Constantine’s solution to this problem is to become Neo the Demon Slayer in order to prove his worthiness to the Big Man Upstairs. This despite the fact that he’s been told countless times that it doesn’t work that way. I guess if he just accepted his fate, there would be no movie. He also has the ability to “see” demons, which is what prompted the suicide attempt in the first place. So talk about being screwed, right? Yeah, I’d be pretty pissed off too.

So after an exorcism scene that’s instantly better and cooler than the entirety of Exorcist: The Beginning, John is approached by Angela Dodson (the ever-stunning Weisz), a cop whose twin sister jumped off a building. What a waste. Then John and Angela team up to uncover a conspiracy and, you know, fight demons and stuff.

I’ve heard a lot of critics say that the plot doesn’t make sense, and in all honesty, when you think about it later it really doesn’t. But I thought it made about as much logical sense as this pseudo-spiritual religious nonsense ever does in movies like this. It’s really not that hard to follow when you break it down: demons are trying to come through human bodies and wreak havoc on the Earth, helped along by half-demons who are already here. Constantine has to stop that from happening. What’s not to get? I’m the last person to understand anything about religion, so if I can understand what’s going on, I think the average person will too.

Besides, since when do movies like this have to make perfect sense anyway? It all sounds like hooey to me no matter how they explain it. Basically, what it comes down to is that this movie takes all that fire-and-brimstone Sunday school stuff dead seriously. A non-religious person like myself should just look at it as a “what if?” story rather than propaganda though. It’s a movie that’s set in a universe where these concepts actually exist. It’s a plot device, like the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant or The Force. You buy the premise, you buy the movie. What you believe remains up to you.

If anything, this movie’s representation of religious iconography is pretty bleak and horrific. It’s the battle between Heaven and Hell played out as a combination of comic-book fantasy, film noir and heavy metal album covers. What’s great is that first-time feature director Lawrence, a veteran of music videos (but don’t hold that against him) completely pulls this vision off. Even though it’s set in modern-day LA, I couldn’t help but think that this is what Exorcist: The Beginning should have looked like (instead of those cheap, phony sets and impenetrable cinematography). It’s not a complete assault on your senses, like you’d expect from a video guy; Lawrence isn’t afraid to use silence and darkness, and does so effectively. And when the shit hits the fan, it makes more of an impact than it would have had it been just relentless hammering on your eye sockets. This guy’s got style and taste, and I look forward to seeing what he does in the future.

Ultimately, whether or not you like this movie will come down to your opinion of Reeves. I know there’s a sizable anti-Keanu faction out there, and I hate to break this to them, but I think we’re stuck with the guy at this point. I mean, my Word program actually recognizes the word “Keanu”, so I think he’s here to stay. I myself don’t mind the guy – I don’t think he’ll ever win an Oscar, but he’s developed a screen presence that you can’t deny. He may not be a great actor, but he is a movie star – and there is a legitimate difference. (I was watching River’s Edge a few months ago, and I was struck by how Reeves really carries the movie as the soul and mixed-up conscience of the piece, despite the more flashy performances from the likes of Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper. He’s good in that movie, dammit! I may not have expected him to have such a huge career back then, but looking back you can definitely see the potential.)

So how is Reeves in Constantine? Pretty good, actually. At times it seems like he’s doing a bizarre Clint Eastwood impression, all squinty eyes and tight-lipped sarcasm. But once you get past that, he manages to make Constantine likable and relatable despite the character’s understandably bleak outlook and harsh behavior. Sometimes the guy’s a real dick, especially to Angela (or maybe he’s just trying to forget Chain Reaction), but it’s a credit to Reeves that the audience never disconnects from him. As Keanu action vehicles go, it’s no Matrix or Speed, but it’s certainly no Johnny Mnemonic either.

Much of the supporting cast don’t get a whole lot to do, but they mostly manage to make vivid impressions anyway. Tilda Swinton is pretty much dead-on perfect casting as the androgynous angel Gabriel – who else could have played this role without looking like a drag queen? Peter Stormare, one of my favorite character actors, seems to be having a blast as the movie’s white-suited Satan. I’d be willing to watch a spinoff movie with Stormare’s Lucifer just wandering the streets, going bugfuck psycho and severely messing with people. And I must admit I got a certain satisfaction out of seeing Gavin Rossdale, former lead singer of sucky pseudo-grunge band Bush (and undeserving husband of Gwen Stefani) get completely pummeled by Constantine. Call me a bastard if you must.

I’m not trying to argue that seeing Constantine is a life-changing experience, or that the movie is a classic for the ages. But it seems like a lot of critics just don’t have any respect for well-made genre films. They don’t like this movie because they don’t like this KIND of movie, not because the movie is bad. As these movies go, I think Constantine is pretty decent. Some movies are just meant to do what they do, and do it well. It used to be that competence and professionalism wasn’t much to ask for in genre movies – but now we’ve got guys like Uwe Boll running around pretending to be good at this. When something this well done comes along, I think we ought to appreciate it for exactly what it is. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

*** 2/23/04

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