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When Superman: The Movie hit theaters in 1978, its tag-line was irresistible: "You'll believe a man can fly." Flash-forward a few decades to another comic-book movie, Constantine (2005). Its tag could read, "You'll believe a man can flip someone off as he ascends to Heaven." Sign of the times? Maybe. In keeping with the New Snark, Constantine certainly has a dry sense of humor about all matters spiritual. The film's a loose adaptation of Hellblazer, the DC/Vertigo comic about hard-bitten paranormal investigator John Constantine, and by "loose," we should say the hero — a bleached-blonde Brit in the books — is played by Keanu Reeves. But don't hold that against the film, which ends up being a great-looking (if silly) supernatural detective story. Reeves is one of those actors, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who works hard but really needs a director who knows how to use him. He never transcends the material; he's utilized by it. Jan de Bont and the Wachowskis understood this, paring Keanu down to a Gen-X abstraction — a cipher onto which we could project our inner Action Guy in Speed and the Matrix films. Director Francis Lawrence tries to do the same thing in Constantine, but the results are mixed — for the simple reason that the John Constantine character is too interesting. He isn't an action hero. He's a mess — a chain-smoking, cancer-ridden, hard-drinking jerk who sends demons to hell because he's trying to buy his way into Heaven after committing a mortal sin. To be sure, the gaunt Keanu looks great in the role; he could start a run on black ties and trenchcoats. But he doesn't transmit any real depth of psychological torment, and he's adopted a slightly "hard-boiled" way of speaking that, frankly, is hard to take seriously. Incredibly, this doesn't derail the movie, because Lawrence keeps the story moving and papers it with a relentless visual wit.

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As Constantine and a burnout cop (Rachel Weisz) investigate the mysterious suicide of the cop's twin sister, they uncover one of those tried-and-true apocalyptic conspiracies — this one involving Heaven, Hell, the Spear of Destiny, the Angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), shiny-eyed "half-breed" deities, and distortions of Catholic doctrine familiar to fans of The Prophecy and Dogma. It all sort of plays out like "Law and Order: Spiritual Victims Unit," but the movie's stuffed (some might say overstuffed) with wonderfully staged moments and set pieces. A man carries the Spear of Destiny north to California, walking past a "Got Faith?" billboard. A demon made of insects attacks Constantine on a busy street. A cursed priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince) finds that bottles refuse to empty their contents into his mouth. A witch-doctor-turned-bartender (Djimon Hounsou) lends Constantine a haunted electric chair. Satan himself — played by Peter Stormare in a pinstripes-and-goo getup out of The Cremaster Cycle — leaves footprints of pitch on a tile floor. And, in the movie's best sequence, Reeves holds Weisz underwater for an alarming amount of time to awaken her to "the world behind the world." It's all so well-paced and cool-looking and mordantly clever that it's easy to forgive the film's transgressions — its overabundance of cannon-fodder supporting characters, say, or a silly gun that shoots holy water, or a truly awful moment when Reeves shouts "What would she DO!" at Weisz over and over and over. No, you'll believe a movie can work, even if you don't always believe a man can act. Warner's DVD release of Constantine features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include 14 deleted scenes, including an alternate ending, with optional commentary by director Francis Lawrence and a "play all" feature, as well as a theatrical trailer. Also available is a two-disc edition of the film, which offers behind-the-scenes featurettes under the headings "The Production from Hell," "Imagining the Underworld," the documenatries "Foresight: The Power of Pre-Visualization" and "Conjuring Constantine: From Comic Book To Movie," and a music video. Keep-case.
M.E. Russell

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