I expect some mysticism when a movie has a character called Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), a nightclub owner whose attire is part pimp and part voodoo priest. I also hope for a sense of mystery and danger in an ambitious tale about redemption, exorcisms and the Spear of Destiny. I loved the story of “Constantine” even though those expectations weren’t quite fulfilled, but I believe it might have benefited from a darker tone.
Constantine, you may or may not know (the latter is more likely), is John Constantine, a demon-fighting mystic part of the Vertigo branch of DC Comics, where he’s British and blond. I knew little about him beyond that, so I’m writing as a film fan commenting on the film version, where the cynical, self-involved and chain-smoking Constantine is played by Keanu Reeves. His performance is interesting, and I enjoyed the world-weary, dry delivery. Here’s a character who’s not trying to win a popularity contest. He won’t hold that elevator door for you, but you sure want him around if somebody’s been overtaken by evil forces.
“Constantine” holds that God and the Devil made a wager for the souls of all mankind. They can have no direct contact with humans, but are allowed “influence peddlers”, half-breeds who may try to steer us one way of another. John was born with the gift- or curse- of being able to see these half-breeds. Horrified by these sightings, he once took his own life. And according to Catholicism, the act of suicide is a mortal sin preventing entry to Heaven, and as such John had a glimpse of where he would end up: Hell. Determined to escape that damnation, he’s been doggedly performing exorcisms, with gizmos including a dragon’s breath shooter (!), to earn his way to the divine gates. He gets a new sense of urgency when he learns he’s dying of lung cancer, and the plot also has Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) going to John in an attempt to find out what really happened to her twin sister. It seems as though she killed herself, but Angela refuses to believe it.
The movie is the feature debut of Francis Lawrence, who has directed several videos for performers including Britney Spears, Shakira and the Black Eyed Peas. He demonstrates some film noir stylings, but the tone isn’t quite there to classify the movie as film noir. Some inspired shots of a darkened Los Angeles and the atmospheric score by Brian Tyler and Klaus Badelt help position the film in a heightened sense of reality, and the depiction of Hell is rather impressive. Yet the role of its chief denizen Satan (Peter Stormare) borders on grotesque when it should be the epitome of fearsome. But I will concede that within the theology as presented by the film, the dual twist of his confrontation with John is simply brilliant.
Weisz contributes an excellent performance as Angela, her intensity adding depth to her character at every crucial turn. Weisz and Reeves have co-starred before, in the mediocre 1996 conspiracy thriller “Chain Reaction”, where she was basically a damsel in distress. This time there’s room for some chemistry between them, and it works. Also noteworthy is Shia LaBeouf as John’s self-teaching apprentice and cab driver. “Constantine” is not captivating, but it has a few neat turns and some inspired visuals.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay