*/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B
starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Tilda Swinton
screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, based on the DC comic
directed by Francis Lawrence
by Walter Chaw The problem with casting Keanu Reeves in the role of DC Comics anti-hero John Constantine, a chain-smoking, blue-collar bloke who happens to have a foot in a supernatural parallel world occupied by angels and demons, is that because of the actor's ethereal--some would say "stoned"--demeanour, he never for a moment convinces that his is the sympathetic point of view. Imagine Robert Redford as Snake Plisskin, or Pierce Brosnan playing Ash in the Evil Dead films: Constantine, if they were insisting on an American actor, should have been Denis Leary. By inserting Reeves as your avatar, suddenly the whole shooting match is about CGI effects and impossible things doing impossible things (witness the last two Matrix films). But even without Reeves as the central distraction, Constantine avoids much of what made the "Hellblazer" mythology so compelling (that Lucifer is beautiful, that Constantine is genuinely an asshole instead of a lovable loser), with its worst crime coming in making the film something of an anti-smoking tract. Displaying the Surgeon General's warning centre stage in one fiery moment and having the hero quit in the movie's worst, most toadying, most cowardly joke, Constantine amounts to a straw man.
The plot, a mix of several storylines from the comic, concerns the attempts of beautiful detective Isabel Dodson (Rachel Weisz, sorely wasted) to unravel the suicide of her twin sister. Apparently her death has something to do with the discovery of the Spear of Destiny (i.e., the spear that Mel Gibson used to pierce Christ's side) and the birth into the world of the antichrist. Enter paranormal investigator and sometime exorcist (his job description makes him out to be some kind of INS agent for Hell's illegals) John Constantine (Reeves), a man dealing with his own damnation, lung cancer, and troubling inability to craft more than one facial expression over the course of nearly two full hours. Together, Constantine (initials "J.C.," get it?) and Isabel mumble some jabberwocky that is only half-decipherable and almost completely meaningless when you do understand it. The high points come with Tilda Swinton, too brief in her appearance as archangel Gabriel, and Peter Stormare, officially portraying Satan at last; lowlights include Djimon Hounsou as a glowering (though everybody's glowering) witch doctor and Shia LaBeouf as the kind of "Robin" sidekick desperate comic book adaptations insert to provide alienated audiences a conduit for suture.
Although there are interesting images here and again in this predictably atmosphere-heavy feature-length debut from music video helmer Francis Lawrence, his wealth of experience matching sound and image amounts to very little in the way of rhythm. Lawrence does, however, give Reeves another chance to affect crucifixion in a weird echo of Patrick Swayze's long goodbye in Ghost, which makes this, what, three in a row now for Johnny Utah, what with his Neo born aloft by metal tentacles in The Matrix: Revolutions and having to pretend to be sexually interested in Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give.
Between its badly-fumbled tripartite story structure (the subplot concerning the Spear of Destiny is inserted randomly enough as to suggest a shot sequence decided by dart board) and a final act that has the grace of a tumble off a ladder, Constantine suffers from either a failure of vision or a rush to finish. More, for all the talk of hellfire and the consequences of faith, Constantine looks and feels a lot like bubble gum. It's slick, facile entertainment that falls back on jumbled mythology whenever a plot point is necessary and short-changes character development in favour of now-familiar digital trickery. (At one point, Constantine pauses at a broken-out window of a high rise, and the urge to yell "Jump, Neo!" is irresistible.) Chewed-up and swallowed, the film seems to constantly be a minute behind the cool stuff--lowering hopes, again, that Neil Gaiman's important "Sandman" run, a title that ran concurrent with the Garth Ennis/Jamie Delano "Hellblazer" arc, will ever find its way to the screen in an incarnation that doesn't suck balls. Originally published: February 18, 2005.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner brings Constantine to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer leagues superior to the fungal-looking DVD. Making a compelling, nay, irrefutable case for Rachel Weisz being the most beautiful woman in movies, the image boasts astonishing depths of texture and detail. It's another peel-and-stick presentation that feels like it just stepped off the silver screen. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track is almost as marvellous--as well as a lot more powerhouse than the attendant DD 5.1 audio that graced the DVD: it's more dynamic and more thunderous, and it better prioritizes the often-quiet dialogue. A straight port of the Special Edition DVD otherwise (save a BD Live-enabled "In-Movie Experience" inaccessible by yours truly and a bonus digital copy of the film), the disc includes a pair of feature-length commentaries and a bevy of standard-def extras. Director Francis Lawrence and producer Akiva Goldsman team up for one of the yakkers and screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello for the other. The second is by far the most interesting of the two, not the least because Lawrence and Goldsman are vacant personalities prone to saying things like "That had to hurt!" and "Too much information!" Cappello was brought in to rewrite Brodbin after Brodbin departed from the project (which he had initiated), although there's surprisingly little tension between them--unless of course it's all been sublimated in their tomato/tomahto pronunciations of "Constantine" and the many passive-aggressive mentions of the character's Americanization.
Falling under the umbrella of "Behind the Story," fourteen featurettes--"Conjuring Constantine" (16 mins.), "Director Confessional" (6 mins.), "Collision with Evil" (5 mins.), "Holy Relics" (8 mins.), "Hellscape" (12 mins.), "Visualizing Vermin" (10 mins.), "Warriors Wings" (3 mins.), "Unholy Abduction" (6 mins.), "Constantine Cosmology" (5 mins.), "Foresight: The Power of Pre-Visualization" (14 mins.), and "A Writer's Vision" (2 mins.)--totalling 89 minutes comprise the bulk of the video-based supplementals. In the unintentional laughs department, we have producer Lauren Shuler-Donner saying, "I think Keanu has a lot going on inside and I believe that John Constantine has the same thing," and Keanu himself speculating in his trademark zen deadpan, "It must have been interesting for [Weisz] to be playing her twin." Weisz declares herself "in love" with young co-star Shia LaBeouf, who must be working some serious Jedi mojo to have acquired so many powerful allies with such a punchable face. Laura Dern look-alike Karen Berger of Vertigo Comics talks out of both sides of her mouth, praising Keanu while wondering why they cast him (and here's where it dawned on me how great Paul Bettany would be in the role). "Super prepared" Lawrence talks about how directing his first feature was "scary" but "fun," prop master Kirk Corwin decidedly leaves stuff out in attributing Hitler's suicide to his sudden loss of the Spear of Destiny, and some Campbell scholar named Phil Cousineau does the Hero's Journey shuck-and-jive, Constantine-style.
For what it's worth, I enjoyed VFX supervisor Michael Fink's conception of Hell as existing in the heatwave from an atomic blast, in description if not in execution, and Cappello's self-commissioned "tone poem" to inspire him in the writing of the script impressed me a hell of a lot more than Lawrence's interminable previz animatics, enough that I wish he had helmed the film instead--even though Cappello's IMDb filmography isn't all that appetizing. Fourteen deleted scenes (18 mins. in toto) with optional Lawrence commentary are mainly of interest for revealing that a pre-fame Michelle Monaghan was purged from Constantine. According to Lawrence, Monaghan's role as a whore from Hell with whom Constantine shares a bed caused test audiences to doubt the protagonist's loneliness, but I suspect there was an element of puritanism involved. (What a spineless flick this is.) Don't bother with the alternate ending, as it's virtually identical to the film's post-credits stinger--right down to that shot of LaBeouf tarted up as an angel. I guess it's true what they say: every time a bell rings, a douchebag gets his wings. Constantine's teaser and theatrical trailers (in 16x9, unlike the preceding 4:3 content) plus the video for A Perfect Circle's "Passive" round out the platter. Originally published: October 13, 2008.