As I’m writing this I’m hearing a commercial for The Last Exorcism, Part Two, behind me and I’m wondering how they punished the priest for messing up the first last exorcism. Is there a special place in hell for him? There is for Constantine, “John Constantine, asshole,” and a lot of eager demons are waiting to pounce on his tainted meat. Constantine is haunted. He is condemned. He is damned. You can see every detail of the depths of that spiritual emptiness on the impassive face of Keanu Reeves’ Constantine. So much so, it’s distracting.
Constantine opens on burnt-out church remains in a Mexican desert where bad flooring leads to the excavation of the Sword of Destiny, the spear that reputedly pierced the heart of Jebus when he was hanging on the cross. The blood-stained tip has been missing since the end of World War Two when, legend has it, the nasties stole and replaced the Holy Lance that was on display in Vienna. The unwitting excavatuee is walloped by a car while walking away with it and gets tagged with the ability to leap tall border fences in a single bound. Constantine is paying an exorcism house call on the Spanish side of Los Angeles. He performs exorcisms to buy his way into heaven. He can’t get in through the usual channels because he committed suicide when he was fifteen to get away from visions of demons, angels and other netherworldly neighbors. You can’t stop spiritual visions with anti-psychotics. In an elaborate rite, Constantine entraps a demon, who is trying to breach this world through the chest cavity of the possessed, in a mirror. This isn’t supposed to happen. People are “finger-puppets to them, not doorways.” On the other side of town, a woman takes a header from the roof of a mental asylum.
Angela (Rachel Weisz), a cop who‘s trying real hard to be good, is confessing her sins, “I killed a man today. Another one. I didn’t even see his face. I just pulled the trigger and he went away.” Angela is told that her twin sister Isabel committed suicide, but Angela doesn’t buy it. Too distracted by paranormal pedestrians to drive himself, Constantine gets around Los Angeles with the help of Chas Kramer (Shia LaBeouf), a “very appreciative apprentice, like Tonto or Robin,” with a cab. Constantine is also helped by Breeman (Max Baker), who deals in holy objects until he bugs out, and Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an insomniac priest who uses his empathic hands to thumb through newspapers so quickly he barely notices the paper cuts. Ultimately he dies of alcohol withdrawal because it’s hard for a priest to get a drink after last call.
Told that he is dying of cancer, Constantine grubs a smoke from a half-breed angel, Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) and picks a fight with a demon. He commiserates with his friend, the former witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), who runs the ultimate dive bar, and a less than sympathetic Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale), a half-breed demon who tells Constantine that everyone in Hell can’t wait for him to die and that Satan is so eager for his soul that he’ll come personally to collect it. Angela shows up at Constantine’s apartment because he’s got a street rep as an exorcist with an inside line on the hereafter. She wants him to do surveillance on Hell. You gotta get your feet wet if you want to go to hell. Water is the universal conduit; it lubricates the transition from one plane to another. So Constantine wets his shoes and slides into hell, which looks like a post-nuclear war site, and takes down Isabel’s new address. Then Constantine and Angela grab a bite to eat, because burning in hell builds the appetite.
After dinner, Constantine tells Angela that God and Lucifer have a standing bet on who can collect the most souls. They use half-breeds as bookies, possessing or whispering to people to collect their markers. Hennessy and Breeman tell Constantine to expect a call from Mammon, the son of the devil, who’s on his way to set up his kingdom on earth (“The sins of the father can only be exceeded by the sins of the son.”) with divine assistance, the help of God. And Angela. Constantine needs to sit down. Constantine and Chas break up a hospital ritual, where Mammon is doing a reading from Corinthians 21, which you won’t find in the King James Bible. In the Bible according to … well, the one in Hell, Corinthians goes to 21. Chas blesses the plumbing to get holy water on tap. Constantine speaks fluent Hellspeak, but Chas is caught trying to pass and gets bounced. Constantine puts on Christian brass knuckles, which you can get at the Vatican gift shop (it is in Italy) and deports the demons for ruining a $400 shirt. The demons get veiny and bubble-faced and bugs come crawling out of their eyes. Constantine gives Balthazar his last rites and threatens to send him straight to heaven. Gabriel points out that it’s only in the face of horror that people find their noble selves, before blowing Constantine away. Lucifer (Peter Stormare) performs amateur surgery, picks up his son and leaves us with the question: Who’s gonna clean up this mess?
In the original comic book series from the 90s, Hellblazer, John Constantine was a magician who looked like Sting and talked like Ringo Starr (Ringo did play Merlin as a Dumbledore lookalike in Hammer Film’s unreleased Son of Dracula) and dabbled in esoteric dabblings in Swinging London. After seeing how Reeves could mangle a British accent in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Capello set the movie in Los Angeles. Reeves overdramatically pulls every word out of the pits of his diseased lungs. His scenes with Balthazar sound like one of those deep voice face-offs on 30 Rock between Devon Banks and Jack Donaghy. When Bertolucci used the empty slate that is Keanu Reeves to portray a Zen nihilist devoid of all things conscious, he found the perfect blank palette. Here we also get a Keanu devoid of consciousness, so trapped by the flashbacks that he sometimes looks like he doesn’t recognize the present, or the sets. Rachel Weisz gives a multilayered performance as both the dead sister and the cop leading a double life. Her spiritual rebirth is so labored that she repaired to her garden for her next movie. Tilda Swinton gives Gabriel a morally ambiguous glam rock ambiance. Gabriel’s clipped wings are painful to look at. Djimon Hounsou’s Papa Midnight keeps the balance. You don’t want to upset the balance in his house. Peter Stormare has his fun as Lucifer, but the devil is always fun to play if you don’t have to wear pounds of makeup.
Constantine was the first movie directed by music video director Francis Lawrence, who’d go on to direct I Am Legend, and he creates the dreamscapes of hell and earth and hell on earth with all the grit and decay that digital recording has to offer. Lawrence strives to make a graphic-noir hybrid, but while he does get some graphic images, he only presents a false noir. Everything smells like sulfur, except Constantine, who lights his cigarettes with exaggerated flourish off his zippo. Constantine wants to shatter the mirror that reflects the image of an unseen war that is waging all around us, but it is too overloaded with clumsy theosophical interpretations of gloom and doom. The characters may have some good lines and there are good performances, but they are unbalanced by an overwrought darkness that tries too hard to enlighten. There is no joy in their creepy descent. Noir needs something to balance itself against; otherwise it’s just a dark screen in a dark room. Constantine gives the impression of somber shadows, but it’s too dingily distracting to leave a bleak impression.
Den of Geek Rating: 2 Out of 5 Stars