Angels and devils walk the Earth, using their powers to influence man to do good or evil. They’re unseen by all but a gifted few, like John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), a man already doomed to Hell but fighting on the side of good in the faint hope of a reprieve. This horror-themed special effects blockbuster is based on the comic book Hellblazer. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) was born with an ability he didn’t ask for. He sees our world as it really is: a battleground located half-way between Heaven and Hell, on which angels and demons fight for our souls. This knowledge was too much for the young Constantine and he tried to take his own life. Before he was brought back from the dead by doctors, he discovered something even more horrifying. He entered Hell itself and learned that, as a suicide, he’s condemned to one day return there, this time for all eternity.
Constantine has dedicated his life to changing his destiny. Hoping to earn a ticket to Heaven, he fights on the side of the angels as a kind of freelance exorcist – a cross between Father Merrin and Blade. He lives in an cheap apartment above a Los Angeles bowling alley. He’s driven to and from his battles with demons by his teenage apprentice Chas (Shia LaBeouf) and he’s supplied with weapons and helpful gadgets by his personal Desmond Llewellyn substitute, Beeman (Max Baker). You see, these demons won’t just leave quietly after a few prayers have been said. They need to be imprisoned in mirrors and then smashed to bits. For especially tough exorcisms, Constantine has a gun shaped like a crucifix that fires bullets containing holy water. Seriously.
Two apparently unrelated events signify that something terrible is about to happen. A Mexican scavenger finds a spearhead, wrapped in a swastika, buried in an old church and a woman with psychic abilities dives off the roof of an LA mental institution. The woman’s sister, a detective called Angela (Rachel Weisz) can’t believe she’d kill herself so she investigates the death and finds one name keeps coming up – John Constantine. Meanwhile, the man himself has noticed that the demons have been acting more aggressively than usual and that the delicate balance between good and evil has started tipping.
The metaphysical horror movie has long been one of the most reliable sources of guilty pleasures. Sure, you get the odd decent one (The Exorcist, The Omen, The Seventh Sign) but most are enjoyable for the wrong reasons – for their silly plots, hammy acting and cheap thrills. I’m talking about films like End Of Days, Stigmata, Bless The Child and Exorcist: The Beginning. Constantine is the daftest film the genre has produced yet, which gives it a serious shot at the title of silliest film ever made. An adaptation of a comic book called Hellblazer, it attempts to meld the metaphysical horror film with the superhero blockbuster. Hellboy actually did something similar last year but that film was wise enough to keep its forked tongue in its cheek. Constantine wants us to take it seriously. Which is not easy to do when its hero is telling a demon he’s about to exorcise, “I’m Constantine, John Constantine, asshole”, before punching it in the face and giving it the finger. Seriously. This could be either a superhero film written by confused religious fanatics or The Exorcist as imagined by teenagers who watch nothing but CGI-crammed action flicks.
The title character is a ridiculous collection of quirks: a miserable, dishevelled, cancer-ridden chain-smoker who turns into an ass-kicking superhero whenever a demon pops up. And who thought Keanu Reeves would be good casting as this morose superhero? I’m not Keanu-bashing – I have more time for Reeves than most reviewers. He’s an ideal action star and, within his limited range. he’s a perfectly good dramatic actor and comedian. However, he is blatantly not cut out to play mythical heroes. What about The Matrix, you ask? Neo in the original film was a likeable, regular guy out of his depth in a wild adventure, just like the cops in Point Break and Speed. When the increasingly pompous sequels tried to turn Neo into a messiah figure, he looked blank and wooden. Reeves should remember that Kevin Costner, whose surfer-dude appeal he shares, all but destroyed his career in the 1990s attempting to play larger than life parts he wasn’t right for. The rest of the characters here are either underwritten and underplayed – Rachel Weisz as Angela and Shia LaBeouf as the needless sidekick – or over the top and down the other side like Peter Stormare’s eurotrash Satan.
The movie’s concept of the universe is a little hard to swallow. Apparently we humans are caught in the middle of a wager between God and the Devil, with our souls as the chosen currency. Angels and devils walk among us and try to influence us by whispering suggestions. This unfortunately conjures up memories of a famous scene in National Lampoon’s Animal House but doesn’t it also reduce the whole Christian belief system to a parlour game between God and the Devil? What’s the point of free will when whether we are good or bad can be changed by some supernatural being whispering in our ears and whether we’re saved or eternally damned comes down to luck? This is a bit nihilistic, isn’t it? Was Constantine written by angry, lapsed Catholics?
The film doesn’t even make sense by its own twisted logic. We learn Constantine is condemned to Hell because he’s a suicide and that, no matter how many demons he defeats, it won’t be enough to convince God to pardon him. Later, in the most absurd scene in the film (and that’s quite a statement!), Constantine extracts crucial information from a demon by threatening to perform last rites on it and thus have it forgiven for its wickedness and sent to Heaven, where it’s implied the angels will be waiting to kick its ass. Seriously. Then Reeves tells the demon he tricked it and that it would have to ask forgiveness to be absolved and get into Heaven. So… why hasn’t Constantine asked forgiveness? Are we to believe a demon – a monstrous servant of Satan – can be forgiven but not a suicide? Isn’t that just a little bit harsh on suicides?
Visually, Constantine reaps the benefits of its large budget. The CGI effects are good and for the most part convincing. It’s just a shame that so little creativity went into them. Hell looks like the atomised city from Terminator 2. Why there would be burned-out cars in Hell, I have no idea. Heaven is represented by clouds and Greek columns. The angels are androgynous people with wings and the demons look like the flying Deadites from Army of Darkness. Pretty unimaginative stuff.
I did like the monster that consisted of a swirling cloud of creepy-crawlies in monster-shape. And that’s exactly the kind of thing that keeps your interest in Constantine, despite its bad acting, anonymous direction and terrible script. You never know what this barking mad movie is going to pull out of its hat next. A fight with a demon, a nightclub populated by demonic “halfbreeds”, a truly bizarre use for a bathtub, the Angel Gabriel as a drag king. Whatever criticisms I could make about Constantine – and these nine paragraphs do not begin to cover it – this isn’t a routinely bad film like Boogeyman and Hide And Seek, it’s a gloriously and flamboyantly bad film like Showgirls and Color Of Night. I can’t recommend it but it’s not like I didn’t have fun.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum