Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Review: Constantine

Since I welched on last weeks Tuesday Fun, I thought that I’d make up for the lapse with a review on the movie Constantine.

Constantine is based, more or less, on the Hellblazer series of comics. Hellblazer is part of DC Comics Vertigo line which is what they use to publish their adult-themed comics. I was actually a fairly big fan of the Hellblazer series back in the days when I had the time and money to indulge a comic book hobby (I shudder to think of all the money I spent collecting rare editions).

In the comics, John Constantine is a sort of modern-day mage with a heavy involvement in the war between Heaven and Hell. Although he is a damned soul, due to his indulgence in various dark rites, he’s very much on the side of the human race in assisting it against malevolent forces. The movie version of Constantine more or less retains this conception of him with relative faith. I would make a minor quibble of the fact that the movie Constantine is described as more of a psychic than a mage but this is decidedly a case of to-MAY-to vs. to-MAH-to. In the movie he’s a damned soul because he successfully (albeit temporarily) committed suicide at the age of 13, thus tainting his soul with a mortal sin. This is also the source of his knowledge of the denizens of hell since his two minute terminal event was a subjective lifetime given the divergence between time in the mortal realm and in the spiritual realms.

The movie opens with a blurb regarding the Spear of Destiny (that being the spear that was used to pierce the side of Christ). We are told that whoever controls the spear has power over the world and that the spear has been lost since World War II. One would suppose that we would learn how it was lost, what was significant about World War II (Nazi occultists?) and some explanation of what the previous owners of the spear did with all of their presumable power. Alas, nothing more is forthcoming on that point. I suspect that we are seeing, in this blurb, the last elements of a previous version of the script that somehow escaped redaction. Be that as it may, the movie opens with two Hispanic men finding the spear underneath a decrepit building (does this happen in Mexico, in the United States, or elsewhere — the movie doesn’t say).

The mood of the opening scene is very reminiscent of the Smeagol and Deagol scenes, from The Return of the King, so much so that I half expected the man who found the Ring, er Spear, to start babbling about his preciousss. Fortunately, the movie quickly moves to a rather good exorcism scene involving a possessed girl, a pissed off demon, and a rather large mirror. Our hero performs the exorcism at the request of a priest who admits to being well over his own head in attempting to give this demon its deportation papers. The scene plays out very well — no joke. If the whole movie maintained this feel and tempo it might well have deserved to become a sort of kitsch classic. Alas.

Finally, we meet our female protagonist, Angela Dodson, a cop, whose twin sister has apparently committed suicide. Angela and her sister are both Catholic and believe that suicide is a damnable sin so Angela refuses to believe that Isabel would have done such a thing, in spite of the fact that she was living in a mental institution. After various false starts she hooks up with Constantine and, together, they start to unravel a demonic conspiracy with potentially (and literally) apocalyptic consequences.

There is a lot I like about this movie, actually. One of my favorite plots in the comics involved Constantine’s imminent death from lung cancer due to a lifetime of smoking and the very clever way that he got out of it by selling his soul not to one but three devils. The essentially elements of that plot were carried over to the movie (although the resolution is different) which I thought showed an actual awareness of the source material, which is more than one can say of all too many comic adaptations I rather liked the portrayal of hell as being a dystopian version of Earth, complete with rusted out cars and some very disturbing demonic hounds. I like the fact that they, at least, tried to portray Heaven although, as with most efforts, Hell is more compellingly interesting. Peter Stormare’s Lucifer was over-the-top, but in a good way, and Tilda Swinton brought an intriguingly androgynous ethereality to the half-angel character of Gabriel. I loved the supernatural nightclub run by Djimon Hounson’s character of Midnite and it’s psychic entry test (you have to guess what’s on the opposite side of a tarot-like card). There were also a lot of genuinely good effects scenes.

There are two things that bring the movie down, unfortunately: plot and acting. I know it’s fashionable to bash Keanu Reaves. Honestly, I think that there are roles that are well suited for him. His portrayal of Neo in The Matrix did a good job of offering us a man whose reality had been swept out from under his feet (at least until he went into Savior mode). Unfortunately, Constantine was not the right role for him. The Constantine of the comics is, above all else, an intelligent character who survives on his wits. Reaves can’t pull that off and the effort of watching him try was painful. Rachel Weisz was very nearly as bad. Her character was supposed to be strong and tough but came off as emotionally flat and mildly pissy. Since these two characters are the leads, we are stuck with watching them try to act their way out of a paper bag for far too many minutes of the movie. The script writers also made the inexplicable decision to give Constantine an annoying teen sidekick named Chas Chandler whose … and believe me, I kid you not… main function is to drive Constantine around in a cab.

As for the plot, it never quite gels and it never quite knows what it wants to d with its (undoubtedly enormous) budget. At its best, it evokes a sense of otherworldliness hiding in the corners of the mundane world but, at its worst, it becomes an incoherent video game. A case in point of both the former and the latter: one of John’s associates is a kind of supernatural arms dealer named Scavenger. He’s a very cool character. When we see him offering his wares to John, which including shavings of the bullet that was used in the assassination attempt on the Pope, water from the river Jordan, and a little box full of some demonically repellant bugs, I was intrigued and amused. Unfortunately, one of John’s acquisitions is a kind of crucifix-shaped shotgun that must have come out of the same armory that produced the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. Much later on when Constantine is blowing away a small army of half-demons with it, I felt like I was watching a very high-tech version of Quake II. This is not at all what the Hellblazer series was about and it’s a disservice to the character of Constantine.

As the closing credits rolled, I felt that I had sat through something that had a lot of potential and, most painfully, which had occasionally risen up to that potential but which had, ultimately, meandered and degenerated into something that was little more than an exercise in creepy eye-candy. Ah well.

1.46 out of 3.14 Nudnicks.

No comments:

what is this?

Tell me when this blog is updated. . .