What the Hell?
Starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, based on Jamie Delano and Garth Ennisí comic book.
Keanu Reevesí theological thriller is Constantine the not-so-great.
By KRISTIAN LIN
When we first see the title character of Constantine, heís visiting a Vietnamese neighborhood in Los Angeles, where an adolescent girl has been possessed by a demon. As the girl convulses and writhes on the bed sheís tied to, the creature starts to emerge from her neck. Thinking quickly, Constantine sends the demon back into her body ... by punching it in the face! I have to admit, I didnít see that coming. What exactly did the filmmakers have in mind? Did they have serious intentions and miss badly, or were they trying to be tongue-in-cheek? Those questions apply to the entire movie, and the answer remains frustratingly unclear.
That early scene notwithstanding, John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) isnít an exorcist, strictly speaking. Rather, heís a guy with the gift/curse of being able to see angels and demons when they appear on earth. The longstanding agreement between Heaven and Hell is that their emissaries arenít supposed to directly contact ordinary people, and Constantine enforces this agreement, sending them back whence they came when he finds them in violation of ďThe Balance.Ē
The film is based on Jamie Delano and Garth Ennisí Hellblazer, a hard-boiled and specifically British comic book series that establishes Constantine as a man who dispenses street-level justice, only with magical powers. The filmmakers here entirely Americanize the story, robbing it of much of its flavor. First-time director Francis Lawrence comes up with some striking visuals, like a great shot early on, of Rachel Weisz as an L.A. cop kneeling and weeping beside the lifeless body of ... Rachel Weisz. Besides being creepy, it also cleverly reveals that the cop had a twin sister and that her earlier dream of killing herself was actually a vision of her sister doing the same. More often, though, Lawrence misses; the half-lit shot of a man carrying an unholy relic through a field while cattle drop dead around him isnít nearly as spooky as it should be.
The lead actor only further dampens the mood. Constantineís supposed to be a guy whoís dying of smokerís hack and possessed of a corrosive sense of humor. Do I really need to say that Reeves is the wrong actor for this part? He lowers his reedy voice to its deepest register, but heís too young and too pretty for a role that could have used someone with as hard and dry a wit as possible.
Thatís too bad, because the casting is otherwise fairly astute. Peter Stormare shows up late in the film as Satan and is spot-on as a polite yet grotesque Lucifer, dressed in a natty white suit and covered in black slime. This Swedish actor puts on a Southern accent, and the strange mishmash that results is perfectly appropriate for the role. Even better is Tilda Swinton as the archangel Gabriel, wearing a manís suit and tie. Gabriel turns out to be something less than a good guy, and Swintonís face is perfect for suggesting someone both beatific and diabolical, not to mention rather sexy.
Yet none of these actors can make sense out of the movieís hopelessly tangled cosmology. Bad as Constantine is, I found it oddly compelling when I first saw it. The movie is swiftly paced, and every venture into the void, every tense meeting with some mysterious character made me think that a crucial clue would turn up and make everything clear. Sadly, that moment never came.
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