Constantine is a rare creation, a comic book-based movie that actually raises some philosophical questions worth thinking about.
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves, The Devil’s Advocate) has a unique story to tell. He’s been to Hell and back, literally. As a teenager, he didn’t want to live; his efforts at self-destruction took him to Hell, but his life was resuscitated after a two-minute glimpse of eternal damnation.
Now a chain-smoking investigator of the supernatural, Constantine is a man desperately searching for redemption and trying to earn his way back into God’s good graces before either Satan or his smoking habit prove to be his undoing.
It’s an interesting storyline, one that provides the perfect backdrop to raise lots of questions on spirituality and faith, as well as serving up some hot side orders of social commentary.
Irony abounds in Constantine’s City of Angels. Across the street, there’s a billboard mocking those famous celebrity milk advertisements. The billboard taunts Constantine with the eternal question: Got faith? Plus there are those omnipresent warnings about the health risks caused by smoking cigarettes.
In Constantine’s world, heaven is a bureaucracy. Based on the fact that he hasn’t prayed enough, gone to church enough, or donated enough, he’s pretty sure he’s ineligible for admittance.
As if Constantine’s life isn’t interesting or conflicted enough, the tensions get turned up a notch when he meets Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy), a police woman whose troubled twin sister committed suicide – or was possibly murdered.
Until the End of the World
Based on the DC/Vertigo Hellblazer comics, Constantine may not be faithful enough to its source material for the true believers, but it hits enough of the right marks to stand on its own for those less familiar with its origins.
Writing off Constantine as simply another comic book movie is to sell it short, much like writing off Hellblazer as just another comic book overlooks its more dramatic ambitions.
Even so, this isn’t perfect cinema. Some of the special effects are cheesy and Constantine will no doubt fall short of the more widespread appeal of the Matrix series. Also, even though Reeves does a fine job of fleshing out a man who perpetually has his back to the wall, he does nothing here to make those who doubt his acting abilities recant.
But, this is a movie full of ideas and that is where Constantine finds its greatest strength.
The angel Gabriel (the very female Tilda Swinton, Adaptation) plays a major role in the goings on, but not as some humble subject of God. In this interpretation, Gabriel’s a little anxious to get ahead in Heaven. Much like Corporate America, where the criteria used to determine bonuses can lead some to cheat the system a bit, Gabriel gets high marks for every soul he brings to Heaven.
What better way, then, to get ahead than by causing mass destruction and the loss of life, thereby generating your own supply of Heaven-bound souls? As Gabriel so eloquently observes, a person can find their nobler self in the face of horror.
The lives of Constantine, Angela, Gabriel, and Satan himself (Peter Stormare, Minority Report) intertwine in an epic that serves as part cautionary tale, part religious allegory, part mystery, and part horror adventure.
That’s quite a lot to juggle, but director Francis Lawrence, who in the past has specialized in music videos for the likes of Britney Spears and Aerosmith, makes the most of his cinematic debut.
Buoyed by a stellar supporting cast that includes Shia LaBeouf (Holes) as a rising star in the supernatural detective business and Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator) as a nightclub owner who’s also a neutral player in the battle of good versus evil, Lawrence has brought to the screen a dark world full of quirky characters dealing with humanity’s most intimate concerns about the ever after on a very grand scale.
While the pacing could be tweaked in spots, the film’s boldness in openly presenting matters of faith, such an un-Hollywood topic, overpowers the faults and makes for a fascinating time at the movies.
Those looking for a simple, mindless escape can be find it in Constantine’s campier horror moments and the pulpy joy of a chain-smoking protagonist Hell-bent on avoiding Hell. However, the dark satire and deeper thematic elements will live on and haunt those who think about them well after the movie’s conclusion.