For someone who hasn’t read the comic, Constantine is kind of like being told a story by a 4-year-old: you have no idea where it’s going, the rules change frequently, and while you may be somewhat charmed for the first few minutes, you spend most of the time nodding and smiling politely through clenched teeth.
Ambitious but shapeless, Constantine explodes across the screen in its best moments, and lands with a thud in its worst, and for the most part there’s enough of the good stuff to keep you occupied throughout. Bolstered by some interesting supernatural and religious flourishes, Constantine is saved from spinning out into total crap by the grounded central performance of Rachel Weisz, whom most viewers with latch onto like a life preserver considering that their only alternative is the wooden, painfully unconvincing performance of Keanu Reeves.
It’s not often that a character is diagnosed with a terminal illness and I sigh with relief. But in Constantine, Reeves’ performance is so horrifically stunted and uninteresting that I nearly cheered when he was given only weeks to live. Not exactly the type of audience response most films are looking for in regards to their hero, but so be it. When we meet John Constantine, he’s exorcising a demon out of a young girl, and he does so with a certain amount of flair and professional know-how (trapping the demon in a mirror and tossing it out the window — clever!). He’s obviously a bit of a curmudgeon, which becomes understandable as we learn that he’s cursed with the gift of being able to see demons, and yet is also cursed to hell because of a past action. So now he spends his time taking out demons in order to try to buy his way back into heaven, smoking, and refusing to act.
Meanwhile, a young wooman commits suicide in a mental institution, and her policewoman twin sister (Weisz, who — despite being an enormously talented actress — has a habit of showing up in these bloated pseudo-religious action films) refuses to believe that it was a suicide, as her loony sis was a devout Catholic and would never condemn herself to hell like that. Sure enough, Angela (ahem — “Angel”a?) and John meet up and a thoroughly uninteresting love affair and a generally nonsensical supernatural murder mystery kick into gear.
Along the way, John and Angela run across such colorful characters as the archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, hermaphroditic as ever), retired voodoo priest Papa Midnight (Djimon Hounsou, on screen for all of 5 minutes), foppish demon badboy Balthazar (Bush’s Gavis Rossdale, in a thoroughly unimpressive display of good looks and non-talent), and a fat, twitchy priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince, Hollywood’s favorite fat, twitchy guy). While some of these encounters are fun enough on their own (and there’s a good deal of occult mumbo-jumbo and lush production design, for fans of that stuff), you really get the sense that you’re being led along by someone who has no idea where they’re going. Every scene features some kind of elaborate and as-to-now unmentioned ritual or object that is all of a sudden of utmost importance, which is a bit annoying, considering it disables you from actually getting involved in the mystery. I’d even argue that the film could be watched entirely out-of-order and still make sense, like a season of The Simpsons. Regardless, stumbling across a new mechanism of salvation around every corner robs the narrative of any inertia and eventually the story feels episodic and long.
In fact, even though I enjoyed most of the pieces of Constantine (the effects are spectacular, for one, and I definitely am a fan of fantasy and religious imagery), I found myself checking my watch frequently after the first hour (as did the people around me). My patience with the 4-year-old was dwindling. But I was at least occupied with the multitude of icky demons and nifty supernatural hoodoo, which are pretty hard to find done at such a level of production these days. But without a concise narrative and a lead actor worth watching, the film never really pulled me in beyond mild amusement. There are a few funny moments (usually related to John’s sardonic sense of humor), but these were also only mildly funny (even jokes that were well set-up, like John’s flipping the bird to a major villain at the end, seemed forced). Again, maybe this is because Keanu’s emotional range is from about here to the garbage can, making it impossible to tell whether he’s telling a joke or crying.
Let me take a moment here to curse out whoever it was that cut the trailer for this film: the most stunning and visceral moment of the movie should have been when Rachel Weisz is sucked through every wall in a skyscraper and pulled into the sky. But since it was in every commercial, it has absolutely no impact. Which is a shame, because within the context of the film, it’s actually set up quite well (Weisz looks sort of ill for a moment and says that her stomach feels funny, and is suddenly pulled through the wall), and had we not seen it coming, this could have been this film’s “Deep Blue Sea” surprise moment. Guys, there were plenty more demons and shit you could have thrown into the trailer — why blow the best shock of the film?
In all, Constantine certainly isn’t a waste of time, particularly for fans of the occult and fantasy, but it’s just not that great, either. Lacking a charismatic lead and a sense of logic to drive the mystery, the assortment of set-pieces and interesting characters that are left behind can’t help but falter. But if you want to watch Rachel Weisz act figure-eights around Keanu Reeves or see what the devil would look like as a gay lounge singer (Peter Stormare, what were you thinking?!), you could certainly do worse.
Note: In my Premature Burial of Constantine, I incorrectly guessed that the movie would be a madcap comedy about being young and single in LA, mixed with a remake of “Brewster’s Millions”. I was wrong about the climax in the nightclub and the subplot about getting the clap from a young WB actress and stealing the socialite’s coke stash, but I was on-point about the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, Tilda Swinton’s continued “etherealness”, and about John’s obsession with fine tailored clothing (he even makes reference to his “$200 shirt” at one point).