Starring: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare
Directed By: Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, the Hunger Games movies, a bunch of '90s music videos)
First of all, you've got to admit that's a pretty money tagline: Hell wants him. Heaven won't take him. Earth needs him. The movie doesn't really deliver on all that, but still...it's pretty cool. And despite its manifold problems, I can't help but sort of like this flick, which is kind of a no-brainer, considering that the director cut his teeth on nineties music videos and there's a scene where Keanu puts on "holy brass knuckles" and beats the crap out of a demon. That's my own issue, though. Also: how can Windows XP's media player make me so nostalgic? I may have a real problem, guys...
If you don't count the whole "making little sense" thing, this movie starts out with a real bang. An Average Joe in Mexico (average José?) happens upon the "Spear of Destiny" (more on this later), wrapped in a Nazi flag, immediately changing the course of this poor guy's life and causing him to be possessed(-ish) by the devil's son. We keep cutting back to him throughout the movie as he gets closer and closer to the center of action and we get the growing impression that this guy is invincible.
But we're also seeing how pesci our hero is. Keanu plays John Constantine, an exorcist-slash-whatever who lives in a weird steampunk fantasy loft (or is it a...boat? I admit to getting distracted during some of the slower parts), where giant chains, gears, and WWI-era cigarette lighters are standard equipment.
We see Constantine in action as he defeats demons here and there, but we also see that he's spiritually tortured and apparently blacklisted from heaven, even while death is drawing nearer in the form of cancer. (Aside: if you've always wanted to watch a sad Keanu cough up bloody phlegm, you're in for a real treat here.)
Okay, I usually try to keep this under wraps in my writing, but I happen to be a former comic book nerd, and the only reason it's "former" is because comics changed while I did not (at least not in ways having to do with my taste in entertainment). So I must comment on the fact that this movie is (sort of) an adaptation of a comic book.
The comic book character John Constantine was created by Alan M00re, who I believe to be one of the most overrated guys ever to enter the world of comics (especially when he's creating characters--Nite Owl????). (Also, I realize there are probably some people out there who will find this post through an "Alan M00re" Google Alert and then leave all my books one-star reviews; OOOH! Just got the idea to preemptively dodge that with the 0's.) In the mid-'80s, M00re created John Constantine while writing for Swamp Thing, basing his appearance and vibe on the singer Sting.
A few years later, John Constantine got his own comic book, which grew in popularity into the early nineties, sort of spearheading the "occult detective" genre and inspiring a bunch of other comics with a similar tone (along with Hellblazer, there was Preacher, Hellboy, etc., not to mention the revival of some forgotten characters like the Spectre, Hellstorm, Ghost Rider, and Deadman), all helping to build up to a generation of brooding comic readers wearing black trench coats and watching The Crow before that became associated with killing your classmates.
True John Constantine fanboys moan about the switch from brusk, blond and British to...well...Neo, but I think it works far better. (Maybe it's the "neutral mask" thing? I dunno.) Really, Neo is oddly suited to this sort of role. Not only the messianic Matrix stuff, but The Devil's Advocate and this movie. Heck, even going back to his Bill and Ted days, we find him traveling to heaven and hell, interacting with God and with Satan, who looked like this:
The cosmology of this flick is much more "Christianized" than the comic ever was, which I admit is the only reason I'd give a movie like this a second glance. The original John Constantine was far more rooted in the occult, and even when the comic started to evolve, Constantine didn't want Heaven or Hell to have a say in human affairs. In that way, he was the ultimate humanist. But this Constantine, after learning he is dying of lung cancer, makes a special trip to ask the Angel Gabriel for more time to get into God's good graces.
The storyline being "adapted" here (and I use that term very loosely) is the "Dangerous Habits" arc from 1991, written by Garth Ennis, who is not in the least underrated. Honestly, the character created by Moore (basically a 2D conman-sorcerer-slash-excuse-to-make-someone-look-like-Sting) isn't the same character from those issues. Ironically, Moore has famously refused to see any film adaptations involving his characters in recent decades, and, while this character is very different from Moore's creation (and is basically just standard Keanu), it's also better.
Merits and Demerits
What made this movie for me was the cinematography, which was super mid-nineties, in the best way possible, despite coming out in the mid-aughties. Shades of Se7en, Fight Club, and even Stigmata. Grimy diners and muted colors, lit with greenish florescent light. That POV shot on the cigarette falling, near the beginning, had me hooked. And that score!
The supporting cast is pretty solid too. Shia "Where the Beef?" plays Chas the wannabe demon hunter, in a super wide-eyed, earnest way that reminds us why America (sort of) fell in love with him to begin with. Rachael Weisz is doing that "Jennifer Tilly meets Marla Singer" accent that she did in Confidence and some other movies from that era and she brings plenty of life to her rather thin "tortured cop with a gift she doesn't want" character. She and Keanu have a great non-chemistry on-screen, which is just what the story calls for. Their first meeting is her walking toward an elevator, saying, "Hold the door. You going down?" and Constantine, pressing the CLOSE DOOR button, answering, "Not if I can help it."
Other things I liked include the best product placement ever: after learning that he has terminal cancer, Constantine gazes up at one of those two-part billboards that reads, "Time is running out......to buy a new Chevy." (There's a nice little undercurrent of dark humor throughout.) I also dug the connection with going underwater to see the spirit world. And this is the first film to make something of how creepy cat's eyes look since....um... Cat's Eye.
But there was plenty to scoff at as well, ironically coming to the fore with the appearance of the incredible Osacr-winner Tilda Swinton, playing a rather androgynous Angel Gabriel (I know this sounds mean, but I seriously don't know if this was an artistic choice or just a side effect of casting Swinton). The White Witch plays Gabriel with black wings and the whole subplot (completely different from the comic book source materiel) is ripped off from an awesomely bad mid-nineties movie called The Prophecy. This Gabriel rebels against God (for the exact same reason as Walken's Gabriel in The Prophecy), is eventually damned to become human (yanked from The Prophecy II), and the finding of extra biblical chapters (or "acts" as this movie calls them) is a pivotal plot element (as it was in The Prophecy). Aside: why the heck is Gabriel wearing a bunch of hospital bracelets?!
- Seriously, that "possessed person on the ceiling, in the corner" thing has been more over-done than any other gag in the history of supernatural movies. I remember being freaked out by it in 1990's The Exorcist III, but even then it seemed like a cheap move.
- The "not-quite-there" CGI (video game quality by today's standards), particularly in the epically unfrightening "hell" scenes. To be fair, the CGI steps it up for the fight between Constantine and the snake-wasp-crab guy (credited with the corny name "Vermin Man").
- Beeman, who is essentially Constantine's "Q" couldn't be trying any harder to be Simon Pegg. And he had "sacrificial lamb" written all over him. Yet the movie seemed to think it was pulling a big surprise with his death.
- Some plot elements looked like they'd been improvised on the spot, like the priest (played by that beady-eyed heavy guy who's been consistently type-cast as a serial killer or cult leader for at least a decade) slamming himself in the hand with a corkscrew over and over. Wha--?
- The Easter egg is the ultimate cheesy cliche. His sidekick has become an angel and flies up from his grave while Constantine looks on. Derp.
Theological Low Points
A reference to "The Book of Revelations" (plural) consistently confirms for me that a given book or film was written by someone with zero biblical training. And that's not surprising with this movie, in which the view of God can be summed up in the line, "God's a kid with an ant farm, lady. He's not planning anything." Even though it is later acknowledged that maybe God did have a plan, God is conspicuously absent from this story. Why? Because God and the devil made a bet for the souls of all mankind, which entails no direct contact, just influence. The entirety of Christianity is based on the idea that this couldn't be more wrong. Christ made direct contact to the Nth degree.
From there it is, predictably, a spiritual gong show. Magic amulets, the symbols of alchemy which are tattooed on the protagonist (aside: if you're interested in alchemy--or if you're not--you should pre-buy my forthcoming book The Last Con!), and various occult items, all of which are sources of spiritual bondage, are used to defeat the powers of darkness. A witch doctor is basically on the good side by default (recalling a spate of supernatural movies in the '80s, in which psychics teamed up with clerics to defeat the devil). Weisz's character says to Constantine, "I know the circles you travel in: the occult, demonology, exorcism..." Um... what?! On top of that, Constantine is constantly boasting and trash-talking demons during exorcisms, reminding them just who he is. In reality, such boastings have never really gone well.
So back to the "Spear of Destiny.". It's supposedly the spear used to pierce the side of Christ on the cross. When he brings it up, Angela answers, "I'm a Catholic, John. I know the crucifixion story." Wait, what? Then, by way of exposition, she adds, "Jesus didn't die by being nailed to a cross. He was killed by a soldier's spear." Wrong again. Jesus was already dead, which was confirmed by the spear piercing his side.
The Spear of Destiny is a whole thing in the DC Comics universe, involving Hitler and the crucifixion...and superheros of course. Even forgetting about Hitler for a minute, turning the blood of Christ into a trope in a monthly comic book or borderline-B-movie is a horrible thing to do…then again, I didn't complain about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But even if it's fair game, the origin and attributes of this relic make no sense. The spear that pierced Christ somehow has great power for evil and destruction? How?? Satan's greatest failure and God's greatest victory are both seen in the cross...if this thing's going to have powers, why wouldn't they be exclusively good?
Another confused aspect of the movie is Constantine's own origin. He killed himself as a teen and spent two minutes in hell. Now, due to the suicide, he's doomed to go back there next time he dies. .. only that doesn't work, even if we assume the sort of "Catholic doctrine as rules in a D&D universe we created" worldview. The reason suicide is seen as such a deal-breaker in some traditions is because you automatically die with a mortal sin on your conscience. But, having come back, Keanu could just go to confession and be absolved of it.
This leads into one of the major theological near-misses: the idea of earning one's way into heaven. Gabriel chides, "You're still trying to buy your way into heaven...that's not the way this works." So far, so good. But in the end, it's Constantine's own self-sacrifice that saves him (not unlike the end of Frozen, only with worse CGI).
That's often the mark of these self-declared edgy spiritual thrillers: a mix of truth and error in a way that is somehow unflattering to both. Gabriel is sounding very angelic one moment and dropping an f-bomb the next.Constantine can't be forgiven his two minutes of self-induced death, but a demon can be sent to heaven against his well, simply by reading him his last rights (out of a NKJV Bible??) And of course, Satan gets to "decide who goes to heaven" by simply "letting them go."
Theological High Points
Predictably, there's not a ton here. The ulta-dapper demon in his fitted three piece suit, with his crisp British accent was certainly in keeping with the biblical notion that Satan's angels disguise themselves as messengers of light. And then, when he gets holy-brass-knuckled in the face (again, that was awesome), his true self can be seen beneath the veneer. "That's better," he quips, "au naturel."
There's also the devil in a white suit (with black tarrish stains all over the cuffs of his pants). Peter Stormare plays Satan--a pretty obvious choice, since (apart from his wacky Russian cosmonaut in the notorious turd Armageddon) he has made a career of playing sickos, psychos, and baddies. This has its pros and cons. Again, someone less overtly evil would have further highlighted the "serpent" aspect of the devil...someone like Dakota Fanning or Dame Maggie Smith or Robert Prosky. Still, Stormare plays the part well (although not as well as Viggo Mortensen in The Prophecy.)
Along those lines, while it's a decent twist when Rachel Weiss (one of the most beautiful actresses working today) is suddenly a devil, why use makeup to make her look evil and gross (a la Stigmata or even Ghostbusters)? Even her teeth get yellow. How/why would that even happen? It would have been far more fitting--and more off-putting--for her to stay gorgeous and be evil.
A few other high points:
- The devil's son is named "Mammon." That is fitting. Although mammon's a lot more attractive in real life.
- Throughout the movie, Constantine is annoyed by people who, instead of fighting evil, are dedicated to "keeping the balance" between good and evil. We may be guilty of that as well. And along those same lines...
- Before going all Neo on a room full of demons, Constantine awesomely grits, "All of you...go to hell." If only we would so completely and relentlessly put to death our sin natures.
- The moment of panic after the exorcism when the viewer has no idea what's wrong.
- "Close your eyes and whatever happens . . . don't look."
- The cattle dropping dead as the antagonist walks by.
- The first big lunge toward the camera when Angela arrives in hell. (Very fake, but still made me jump)
Worst Attempted Scares
- All the Zack Morris cordless phones ringing at once.
- A guy's half-a-face, lying on a table, talking. That's just...hilarious.
- "I've been seeing some unusual soul traffic."
- "It's a rat in a dress.” “Of course it is."
- "I thought I heard thunder last night. Must have been Satan's stomach growling."
- "Two hundred dollar shirt, by the way."
- "That's called 'pain.' Get used to it."