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Constantine Reviews

02.09.2005

Constantine pic

JoBlo regular reader reviewers MadsenOMC and Hank Scorpio were cool enough to send in some good reviews about CONSTANTINE. The first one is from Hank and is nice and spoiler free. The second one is from OMC and does contain spoilers. They're both positive, though. It seems CONSTANTINE might just be a surprise hit. It's set for release February 18th.

Constantine pic

Take it away Hank…

“What if I told you God and the Devil made a wager for the souls of all mankind?” – John Constantine

Why would He do something like that? That doesn’t sound like Him. Nevertheless, this is the core idea Constantine is based on, that God and Lucifer are on opposite sides with Earth as a neutral zone. Man is regularly influenced, pulled in different directions, but with no direct contact from either side. “The détente of the original Superpowers,” as the film refers to it. In the middle of this supernatural game of checkers stands a lone, weary, warrior, John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), a rude, chain-smoking, meddler in the occult, who has spent his entire adult life hunting down “halfbreeds,” demons from Hell who have gained more then their fair share of influence on Earth, and forcing them back to where they came from.

This is not the Constantine I, or anyone who has ever heard of him, am familiar with. That John Constantine, created by Alan Moore in the early 1980’s, was a blonde, brown trenchcoat-wearing, acid-tongued, chain-smoking Englishman who starred in a Vertigo comic book titled Hellblazer. Constantine’s John has transformed into a raven-haired, black trenchcoat-wearing, laconic, chain-smoking American. His stomping grounds, Great Britain and points beyond in the comics, are now a grimy, shadowy Los Angeles. And yet, immediately upon meeting him and watching him perform an exorcism that sets the wheels of the story in motion, Reeves creates a John Constantine as true to the comics in spirit as he is different in appearance. There is immediate verisimilitude. This is John Constantine, all right. He looks and sounds different, but God damn it, it’s him.

The movie’s story is loosely adapted from perhaps the most highly regarded of Hellblazer’s storylines, “Dangerous Habits,” in which Constantine must come to grips with being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. However, Constantine grafts an original story involving God, Lucifer, their Sons, Heaven, Hell, demons, angels, the Spear of Destiny, and the end of the world. John Constantine navigates a frightening maze, searching for the clues to the suicide of Isabel Dodson, whose soul is damned to Hell. Aiding him on his quest is Isabel’s twin Angelica Dodson (both played by Rachel Weitz), a police detective running from her and her twin sister’s past and searching for the answer to her own future. They encounter a memorable cast of characters also late of Hellblazer: Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), whose character somewhat resembles Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, except black, fearsome and supernatural, the Archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), and the demonic halfbreed Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale, yeah, the guy from Bush). It’s nice to see Hounsou no longer playing a slave of some sort. He’s finally been given us free of typecasting. Swinton, not so much, as she continues being the go-to actor for creepy, androgynous characters. Rossdale was a pleasant surprise, putting in a slimy and sinister turn, and getting that pretty face of his messed up. Not so pleasant was Shia LeBeouf as Constantine’s would-be apprentice. Constantine even refers to LeBeouf as his Robin, which didn’t come off as a compliment. Thankfully, the film forgets all about him during the entire middle act, and when he reappears again, his story ends differently from what you’d expect.

Reeves is much better than most anyone feared. He understands the doomed but defiant nature of John Constantine and does a spin on the character that both respects its source material while playing to his strengths as an actor. What strengths? Come on, give the guy a break. Unlike Neo, who struggled with his mission in the Matrix trilogy, Constantine has no such internal conflicts. He’s damned, he knows it, fuck the Devil anyway. Weitz was also strong and sexy in her dual role. There’s chemistry between the two but John Constantine is not the best man on Earth to get emotionally involved with, and he’d be the first man to tell you that.

Constantine is a horror picture crossed with a character study, much more akin to David Fincher’s Seven than a Wes Craven dead teenager movie. Director Francis Lawrence had the balls to go for broke, taking Constantine and the audience on more than one jaunt through the flaming cityscapes of Hell, the golden gates of Heaven and points in between. Lawrence made his name directing music videos for luminaries such as Justin Timberlake and Avril Lavigne (and to be fair, those videos were pretty good) but he dispels any fear that he’s another Michael Bay, lacking the discipline or talent for making quality feature films. Lawrence’s visual style is bold and daring, yet he had a firm grasp of the characters and story. Constantine doesn’t play for laughs or irony either; this movie knows its subject matter is disturbing and isn’t shy about it. There are a few problems, notably the somewhat languid pace, and one particular sequence where it wasn’t entirely clear where the characters were as they traveled instantly through sets that were thought to be far apart in the story. Some of the CGI work on the monsters come off as less than convincing, although the location visuals were awe-inspiring, especially downtown Hell. Still, Constantine was a pleasant surprise in almost every way and is a superior effort from everyone involved.

What audience this movie is for isn’t entirely clear. It’s a dark, savage, supernatural thriller with horror elements and several nods to its comic book origins. Constantine is not a movie that will be readily embraced by the red states given the current cultural climate in America. But for those of us who don’t need to clutch the Bible to our chests in order to fall asleep at night, Constantine is a thrilling roller coaster ride right to the Devil’s doorstep, where we can all live vicariously through John Constantine as he walks up to Devil, sticks a middle finger right in his face, and gets away with it.

8/10 by the JoBlo scale. And if I may, please visit my website www.backofthehead.com, where you might find other readings to enjoy or hate.

Constantine pic

And now for MadsenOMC's take on it…

Knowing absolutely nothing about the Hellblazer comic book, I didn't know exactly what to expect with Constantine. The trailer made it look moderately intriguing and I'm fond of stories that have religious undertones and deal with faith, good and evil. So I took my seat, crossed my fingers, opened my bad of candy and hoped for the best.

Constantine begins in Mexico. Two men are digging, for what I'm not sure, and one of them steps through some boards buried under the dirt and stumbles upon some sort of a dagger. Immediately prior to this, we have been told that a specific sword holds the key to controlling mankind, and that it's been missing since WWII. It's not hard to put two and two together.

Then we are introduced to John Constantine. A priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince) calls him to save a young girl who is possessed by something. John performs an exorcism on her, which fails. Surprised, he asks for a mirror at least three feet tall. He chants and brings a "soldier demon" out of the girl. The demon is sucked into the mirror, which Constantine throws out the window, destroying it.

Since demons are not supposed to cross over, Constantine is puzzled by what has happened. As he investigates, the audience begins to learn a little bit about him. Born with the ability to see both angels and demons on Earth, he commits suicide as a teenager and is dead for two long minutes before being brought back to life.

Now attempting to save his damned soul and earn his way into heaven, Constantine uses his ability to fight the demons. As he explains to the twin sister (Rachel Weisz) of an apparent suicide victim (also Weisz), God and the devil, just for shits and giggles, have made a wager for the souls of human beings. The angels and demons, working on their behalf since they are forbidden direct contact with humans, are the intermediaries.

Angela, a police officer, does not believe that her sister, Isabel, would ever kill herself due to her unwavering belief in God. When she spots something odd on the surveillance footage from the psychiatric hospital where her sister was a patient, she enlists the help of Constantine. She has heard of the circles he travels in and hopes he can point her in the right direction. Upon leaving his apartment after wishing her luck, he spots a demon following her and soon discovers that Angela is somehow tied to the strange exorcism he performed earlier.

The problem with Constantine is that while it is always engaging, it never progresses into something more. It travels in a completely straight line. It starts off pretty good and ends up the exact same way. No momentum is built and the grand finale is anti-climactic. It fails to build into a satisfying whole and leaves one feeling a tad frustrated.

There is a lot to admire, though. For starters, Francis Lawrence makes an impressive debut behind the camera. I feel that far too many genre efforts have been over-directed lately, everything from Saw to Boogeyman. As if knowing full well that the story isn't up to snuff, the director (along with the editor and sound department) uses excessively flashy visuals in an effort to disguise or distract from a weak screenplay. They employ quick cuts and fancy angles and loud noises and whatever else they can conjure up, though it rarely, if ever, works.

Thankfully, Lawrence's direction is mostly restrained. He doesn't resort to camera tricks or pounding music or frenzied editing. He allows the story to breath and gradually reveal itself over the two-hour running time. It's a very respectable, admirable debut.

Reeves, a punching bag for so long, acquits himself nicely. Though the chain smoking Constantine is your standard anti-hero, cynical and brooding and stoic, Reeves underplays the role and is convincing from beginning to end. He doesn't have to clear a space on his mantel to make room for an Oscar or anything, but it's a good performance.

He is helped by an excellent supporting cast. In addition to Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Djimon Hounsou, Peter Stormare and even Gavin Rossdale are a welcome presence. Only Shia LaBeouf disappoints as the nerdy wannabe sidekick character around only to offer comic relief, which doesn't really work.

The concept of a man desperately working to earn his way into heaven after committing a mortal sin is a fascinating one. And even though the religious mumbo jumbo occasionally gets a little corny, for the most part it's handled competently and never becomes tedious or convoluted.

Why, then, am I not more enthusiastic about Constantine? It isn't easy to explain. The movie is well made, entertaining and certainly worth seeing. I didn't even mind the abundant CGI (which I normally hate) because Lawrence used it to enhance the story rather than tell it for him. But once it has your attention, it seems content to hold it without ever really challenging it. It's not as dark or intense as you'd hope, and ultimately concludes in a fairly conventional manner. Close, but no cigar.

Source: JoBlo.com

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