Monday, March 07, 2005

There and Back Again: "Constantine"'s Bogus Journey

directed by Francis Lawrence
starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia Laboeuf, Djimon Hounsou, Tilda Swinton

“Constantine” is that saddest of all things, a bad movie that *could* have been good. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s a really dumb movie that aspires—in vain—to be smarter.

There’s a scene about mid-way through in which the eponymous John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), poised to embark on a quick jaunt to hell, is seated on a chair with his feet submerged in a basin of water, a gray cat in his hands, and a rather blank look on his face. (Spare me the jokes on Keanu’s blankness, which I’ll get to later.) I suppose one could say this image, which mingles New Testament iconography (the washing of Christ’s feet) with a touch of the satanic (yellow-eyed cat, devil’s familiar), depicts the eternal fate of man, balanced precariously on the cusp of heaven and hell.

To me, though, and I’m sure to others, it merely depicts Keanu with his feet in water and a cat in his hands, looking pretty damn ridiculous.

Therein lies the problem of “Constantine”—chiefly a problem of tone, though the movie’s also plagued by serious pacing and plotting issues. Based on the “Hellblazer” comics/graphic novels, it starts with an intriguingly manichean premise: Although Earth is a battleground between good and evil, it’s also a kind of DMZ between heaven and hell. By mutual agreement, neither God nor Satan is permitted to intervene directly in the lives of humans; they may, however, apply influence through the counsel of angels, devils, and “half-breeds” that haunt this world and whisper in our ears. (Never did get exactly what the “half-breeds” were or how they came to exist, but then there are a lot of things I didn’t get about this movie that I frankly ceased to care about getting.)

Few humans can see the otherworldly influence-peddlers—one of them being, of course, our boy Constantine, who uses his visionary powers to hunt down the “half-breed” demons that break the rules by inhabiting human souls. His self-appointed task is to evict any such offenders, give them a good ass-whooping, and send them straight to hell. But he’s not doing this work out of faith or charity. As a teenager, young Constantine committed suicide—the guaranteed one-way ticket to eternal damnation—and was only brought back by the doctors after being clinically dead for two minutes, long enough to see the fate that awaited him. Since then, he’s been laboring doggedly to pave his way to heaven, one exorcism at a time, even though he’s consistently informed that the entire enterprise is an exercise in futility. On top of it all, his time is running out: having been a chain-smoker his entire life, he has a black tar popsicle where a lung should be (which doesn’t stop him from lighting up about once every ten minutes in the movie), and devils gleefully monitoring his deterioration from all sides, licking their chops as they count the days to when they can claim him for their own.

So far so good (or grim). However, the actual driving plot of “Constantine” is far more muddle-headed—something about some deep-laid conspiracy to upset the Balance and unleash hell on earth, that turns on the so-called Spear of Destiny, a devils’ Bible, and an improbably beautiful cop named Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), as well as her dead twin sister Isabel (also played by Weisz). Isabel’s apparent suicide, inexplicable conduct for a devout Catholic, prompts Angela to seek Constantine’s demonological expertise. After initially rebuffing her, Constantine assists Angela in investigating how these elements fit together, fends off a slew of demons (and one angel) along the way, and takes not one but *two* trips to Satan’s domain—which for some reason assumes the form of a flaming junkyard. (Perhaps the things that look like scrapped cars are the damned souls of automobiles that never got above 20 mpg.)

Although “Hellblazer” was originally set in London, the movie transplants the action to Los Angeles, which works better than the fans might give it credit for: after all, this is the city that produced the long shadows of classic noir from its sun-drenched streets. Director Francis Lawrence predictably draws on some of that aesthetic, plus a touch of goth-supernatural vaguely reminiscent of Alex Proyas (“The Crow”). Not surprisingly, there’s also a fairly heavy infusion of Catholic imagery into this mix, some of it subtle, some of it less so—among the latter, a species of heavy-duty anti-antichrist artillery, wielded by Constantine and his sidekick, Chas (an irritatingly whiny Shia Laboeuf), that resemble nothing so much as giant crucifixes.

To Lawrence’s credit, there are some striking images that linger long after the film’s finer narrative points (or lack thereof) have faded: the turn of a woman’s back to reveal the graceful, faintly terrifying spread of angel’s wings; a nightmarish sequence in which a maddened priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince) drinks a liquor shop dry but can’t quench his tormenting thirst; another in which all the lights of a street are extinguished, save the glow of a humble Madonna in a cluttered shop window. But for every sequence that conveys a genuinely apocalyptic chill, there’s another that comes across (unintentionally, I’m sure) as pure camp. The bearer of the Spear of Destiny crosses a field of cows, all of whom promptly flop over and die as he approaches. The devil’s spawn finds its way into the body of a woman and threatens to burst forth into the world, perhaps as a kind of diabolical parody of the birth of Christ, but really most reminiscent of the pop-up parasite in “Alien.” And Constantine’s showdown with the Old Nick himself (Peter Stormare in a white suit—ooh, how ironic) reaches its climax with an obscene gesture, which would be amusing if it weren’t so absurd in context.

The larger failure of “Constantine” is its failure to draw the uninitiated viewer into the heart of its cosmic battle. The movie gets lost in its own plot, but it’s hard to care—because there’s nothing to compel us to care about any of the players involved, never mind that the fate of humanity supposedly depends on their actions. Weisz’s double role is little more than a tentpole for the plot, and a pretty weak one at that. Casting Tilda Swinton as the archangel Gabriel was brilliant, but saddling her with motivations that make no sense was not.

As for Keanu, he’s done the messianic thing before, and, I would argue, done it well: what many (wrongly, in my opinion) perceive as woodenness or vacuity is, in fact, simply an undisturbed repose, a stillness that gives his face the pure beauty of sculpture—perfect for a spiritual icon. But Constantine, notwithstanding his initials, is meant to be as much antihero as savior—grim, moody, and a bit of a churl. Keanu tries, but he doesn’t do surly very convincingly. (And I say this as one of probably fewer than three people on this planet who think he wasn’t that bad a Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”) When he snarls, “I’m John Constantine, asshole,” to a wayward demon, the declaration only has the effect of underscoring how ill-suited that surfer voice is to a growl. He’d better have stuck to the "whoas."

RATING: 1 3/4 *


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