Genre: Action, Fantasy, Horror
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Djimon Hounsou
To say that Constantine is “ridiculous” is to say nothing useful about the movie. Of course it is ridiculous. It concerns a paranormal detective who has a talent for seeing the creatures of heaven and hell battling it out for the souls of mankind on Earth, and I would be crushingly disappointed if it were anything less than ludicrous. I don’t think people realize how boring the cinematic landscape would be without a healthy dose of absurdity, since the freedom to dabble in the outlandish is often accompanied by energy, spirit and daring.
Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of the “Hellblazer” comic books is insane, over-the-top, and not entirely coherent, but it is also breathtakingly alive with imagination and possibility. I am easily taken by films that show me a world I have never seen before, but Constantine doesn’t just invent its own universe, it creates it out of twisted Christian mythology. Considering my unapologetic love for the genre I affectionately term “religious mumbo-jumbo,” no prizes for guessing my reaction to this movie.
The film insists that Jesus Christ was killed not by the crucifixion, but by the Spear of Destiny, which still carries remnants of his blood. In the opening scenes, the Spear is found somewhere in Mexico; its new owner promptly gets hit by a car and walks away unscathed as cattle collapse all around him. Who knew that Jesus’ blood could kill cows?
Anyway. This ostentatious opening sets in motion a story that is more noir than anything else, giving us a highly stylized version of a Los Angeles where angels and demons lurk just beneath human consciousness. There’s an exciting scene where John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) performs an exorcism on a girl and traps a hideous creature inside a mirror — this isn’t supposed to happen. “They’re trying to come through,” he says ominously.
As you see, I have been reduced to describing the plot. It is such a curiosity that I want to impart as much of it as possible in the hopes that it will intrigue you. There is certainly much more — the angel Gabriel comes into play, as do a love interest played by Rachel Weisz, and a method of entering hell that you have to see for yourself. Satan shows up, though I don’t dare reveal how he manifests himself.
But while I am fascinated by the story (whereas most, I suspect, will simply guffaw at it), Constantine‘s main attraction is Francis Lawrence’s visuals, which are endlessly creative and sometimes genuinely chilling. It is rare for “comic book movies” to achieve anything beyond a vague conception of what is “cool,” but Lawrence gets real traction out of his vision of hell, for example, and the idea of demons among us — these images are more than money on the screen. They stay with us.
It’s funny how the hell of Lawrence’s imagination is both a classical conception — fire, brimstone and unbearable torture — and a beguiling perversion, with half-decapitated demons scampering about while the flames seem to shape-shift. Most of the movie is done in this vein, its visions based in what we know, but twisted and exaggerated to the boundaries of recognition. It is bizarre, some of it inexplicable, but it is impossible to look away.
It is true that the story devolves a bit in the final minutes, and never quite resolves on an intellectual level. But this is such a visionary effort that I dare not complain. At a time when big-budget movies are focus-grouped and diluted into oblivion, Constantine dares to dream.