Saturday, February 21, 2015

Constantine (2005) review

    The Spear of Destiny is found in Mexico, hidden by the Nazis. Demons, hoping to bring about the end of the world, spirit it away. Freelance exorcist John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) becomes suspicious of events due to an increase in demonic activity and aggression. Unfortunately, John has his own problems due to the discovery he has terminal lung cancer and his name being linked to the mysterious suicide of a mental patient.

    Said patient's identical twin, police officer Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), proceeds to track down John in hopes of getting answers but finds herself way-in-over-head with his word of demons and angels. Heaven, for all of its presence, also proves surprisingly uninterested in preventing Armageddon or helping John reach eternal salvation. This is a synopsis of the very convoluted, but surprisingly easy to follow on-screen, plot of 2005's Constantine.

Keanu brings the right level of world-weariness to the character.
    I'm extremely fond of this movie, which automatically makes me a heathen amongst hardcore Hellblazer fans. Well, no, not really. I think the common consensus ten years later is this was a excellent Urban Fantasy film but it wasn't what fans wanted from the franchise. We're spoiled now, with our Marvel Cinematic Universe, that we forget comic book movies don't necessarilly recreate everything in the pages as we imagine them to be.

    To be fair, the criticism then and now is still pretty valid. Forget Keanu Reeves' looks, I don't think those a big factor. If Daniel Craig can be a blond James Bond, I wouldn't mind Keanu Reeves being a dark-haired John Constantine. The fact he's American, or at least heavily implied to be, is a bigger issue. Then there's the fact John is depicted more as a pure exorcist than a (mildly talented) wizard. I'm willing to give them a pass with this too since John does plenty of stuff which qualifies as magic.

    Finally, there's the fact John is trying to get into Heaven when the book John considers the Celestial Host to be equal-to, if not worse, than Hell. I'd point out it was a choice of evils and John isn't too fond of Heaven in this movie anyway. They're all excuses, though, for changes from the source material which didn't have to be made. Yet, here I am, a Hellblazer fan willing to make those excuses.


The film's image of Hell as an eternally flaming Los Angeles is well-done.
    Because the movie is good. Real good. Not great, mind you, but real good. Even more than the television show, I think Constantine manages to capture the world-weariness and jaded cynicism of the character. Keanu Reeves catches a lot of flack for being a wooden actor but it works in Constantine because I got the sense of a man without much hope in his life. The John of the movies is a tired, cynical, beaten-down man who continues to fight the good fight against demons mostly because they piss him off. He's the sort of man who knows an Archangel personally but says, "God is a kid with an ant-farm."

    The movie manages to capture a lot of things about Hellblazer which I think newcomers would, otherwise, miss like the fact knowing John is dangerous. He makes ample use of friends, connections, and associates during the film only for them to get killed off in a variety of ways. Sadly, one of those characters is Shia Lebouf's Chaz, who is one of the few mistakes in the movie. As an annoying tagalong who is, at least, meant to be an annoying tagalong he is alright but I can't help thinking almost any sort of substitute character would have been better.

Two of these actors are really good in this movie. No points for guessing which.
    We also get characters like Papa Midnight (Djimon Hounsou) who, like John, stradle the two worlds while playing both sides against one another. I regret the character of Ellie was left on the cutting room floor since John being in a relationship with a Hell-aligned succubus would have added considerably to the film's already heavy moral ambiguity.

    The story is an adaptation, loose as it may be, of Dangerous Habits. One of the better Hellblazer arcs, it's spruced up with a plotline about the Antichrist trying to birth itself with the Spear of Destiny. While John Constantine is always better when dealing with personal human stories rather than big epic heroism, I didn't mind this change either. The movie makes it clear the plan is, in a real way, stupid. When neither the Devil or God approves of an apocalypse, you're going to find it difficult to get much traction.

    Nevertheless, I loved Tilda Swinton's portrayal of Gabriel in this book, serving as the face of Heavenly self-righteousness and smug condemnation. The fact we later find out Heaven and Hell may be cooperating in their desire to bring about Armageddon is another factor which fits the film's Noir sensibilities.

Tilda's Gabriel is a snooty delight.

    Rachel Weisz has the thankless role of playing the part of the audience surrogate and, later, the Damsel in DistressTM. Despite this, I was able to believe she was an otherwise reasonable person in very unreasonable circumstances. The fact the movie avoids a romance arc between her and John, both of them having much bigger problems than love, also makes her presence far more tolerable than it might otherwise be.

    There's a lot of genuinely cool scenes in the movie like the encounter between John and Satan, John's faux-last rites of the demon Balthazar, John's visit to Hell, and any scene involving Gabriel. I'm also fond of the wholly unnecessary but still-delightful scene involving holy water sprinklers and a dragonsbreath-round shotgun. John using a shotgun to take down demons is about as far from the literary character as you can get but so satisfying.

    Purists are going to hate the changes, no matter what, but I think the movie is a far more faithful adaptation in its own way than the recent television series. Nothing against Matt Ryan's performance but the simple fact is the world of the movie is a dark, scary, and compromised world which John just tries to live in. I think they do themselves a disservice by not appreciating how much of the comic's flavor they managed to bring to the screen untouched.

    I consider this a must-buy for Urban Fantasy fans even if it isn't the greatest Hellblazer adaptation ever done. The movie is tremendously fun with great characterization, an interesting mythology (if not an entirely coherent one), and fun memorable scenes. In a very real way, I consider this to be my favorite non-Batman, non-Marvel Cinematic Universe comic book movie.


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