Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis and others
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare, Djimon Hounsou
Studio: Village Roadshow/Warner Bros.
Plot: Constantine, dying of cancer, is saving possessed souls so he can get into heaven. Angela, an urban cop, is investigating the death of her twin sister. Demons, evil, are invading our plane of existence, with help from a pretty bad-ass macguffin, the spear that killed Jesus.
Comments: Disclaimers first. I don’t read Hellblazer (although I have obtained a few issues because of Dave McKean art). I know Constantine from his guest appearances in Swamp Thing, and various other interventions. And even I knew that a chain-smoking, bitter, witty cynical Englishman (wasn’t Sting the original model for the look?) was something Keanu could never be.
Wisely, the man knows this himself, and he doesn’t even try. The most he can manage is a kind of skepticism (a nifty trait to pull off when your character is a gifted psychic and shaman) and a world-weary scowl. That’s actually enough for this script, which, like the Matrix series, plays to Keanu’s strengths. Regardless of his way with words, the camera loves him, and it especially loves him in black. His subtly androgynous, possibly Asian features and pale skin are right at home in a fable of good and evil, making him a dramatic, ghost-like presence in a shadowy world. He is, in his way, a Chauncey Gardner for Generation X, a blankly beautiful, sufficiently masculine mannequin upon whom our desires can project. He’s actor as screen, as at one with his medium as an artist can be.
That said, the producers have wisely packed the film with colorful character actors, as an ornate frame to provide contrast and gleeful business around his minimal, stoic center. And they are memorable. Max Baker as a supplier of occult weapons (all of which prove very useful) is full of nerdy sleight of hand; Hounsou channels intensity as the defiantly “neutral” Papa Midnight; while Stormare makes for a memorably bizarre Dark Prince. Most effective is Tilda Swinton as a very judgmental and tightly wound Angel Gabriel.
This is perhaps Swinton’s most high-profile role yet, and she’s a worthy conundrum of a Scottish actress. She has the ethereal looks of an elven supermodel (she could easily have played Galadriel in Cate Blanchett’s stead), but she chooses roles that demand a certain boyish androgyny frequently. Like Keanu, she’s a magnificent creature that comes to life under studio lights, but she has a wealth of creative possibilities to bring to each line delivery. Here’s she one scary guardian angel, more a crucible than a protector of her human charges.
Rachel Weisz’ character is the plot that keeps the story moving, and while I feared it would descend into horror movie cliché (she’s the “strong psychic” that demons have targeted for possession), the movie avoids the usual pitfalls (of stupid choices, insta-pregnancies and last-minute betrayals). She’s as doggedly on the case as is Constantine, and once he gets on board they work together to head off the evil working against them. The action scenes are few, set up by investigation and spell preparation, but the dialogue is generally strong. There’s the barest attempt at sexual chemistry between Weisz and Reeves, but fortunately not enough to distract from the themes of damnation and salvation.
Constantine has a lesson to learn in this trial, as does Angela, and Stormare, dripping black goo in a white suit, scenery-chews in the best way possible when Satan shows up to claim a tempting soul. The special effects (several scenes are complete CGI), do not overwhelm. They’re used sparingly in the human world, and are perfectly suited to depict a nuclear-blasted Los Angeles as the definition of hell (well, it has palm trees and streets full of abandoned, flaming cars, anyway). I also enjoyed the water and fire symbolism in the movie, as water is strangely a conduit to the burning place. We get a glimpse of the Heavenly City as well, and see the beats of a few angel wings, saved mostly for dramatic moments.
While hardly a great film, it stays true to itself and I think true to the comic, offering us a close-up glimpse of the magical, fateful world the faithful know exists alongside ours. And count your blessings. It’s not like Sting’s a great actor, either.
Note: remain in the theatre as the closing credits roll for an additional short scene.