John Constantine is a damned fool - literally. Born with the ability to see into the spiritual realm, his gaze pierces the disguises of earthbound demons, revealing them in all their horror, whether Constantine wants to see them or not. Desperate to flee the torment of meeting hellspawn on every street corner, Constantine commits suicide and is sent to Hell. But his misguided attempt to escape fails, and Hell spits him back out, damning him to walk the earth as a foot soldier in the war between Heaven and Hell. Now he hopes to win redemption by sending enough of Satan's minions back to their fiery home.
When a sceptical police detective asks for his help in solving the mysterious death of her twin sister, Constantine refuses - he owes her no favours, after all. But he soon realises that her investigation is bound up with the fate of the entire world, and that she might just be his ticket into Heaven.
(Note: There is an alternate ending after the closing credits of the film.)
"Constantine" is easily one of the most frustrating films of the year. With a solid B-list cast, an interesting premise and oodles of expensively manicured visuals, you might expect first class entertainment - a delicious popcorn movie with an extra cheesy topping. Instead you get a watered down soup of unfinished ideas, garnished with a handful of intriguing scenes like tantalising but unsatisfying croutons.
The villain of this piece is, predictably, the studio. Hollywood studios seem to be run by a bunch of prissy rich kids with fashionable naughty streaks. They buy into counter-cultures, like comic books, because they sense that they are "cool" (ie. profitable), but when the time comes to translate this coolness into a movie they get all coy about the details. It's as if studio execs are born with an idiot savant ability to seek out intriguing stories, only to systematically strip them of all their flavour.
In his original comic book glory John Constantine is pretty darn interesting: a foul-mouthed, drunken, womanising, chain-smoking cockney con-artist who banishes demons for a living. After all the studio's "improvements" we have Keanu Reeves in a trench coat looking grumpy. He does still chain smoke, but you can be sure they would have taken that out if it weren't vital to the plot.
Of course the studio's "improvements" are based on solid business principles: they know what sells. They would rather tone down a movie, make it dumber, quieter, and less abrasive than risk alienating paying customers. Hey, when you're forking out 100 million dollars you don't want to start offending folks - you gotta fill those seats!
Still, the movie is good looking and professional enough to make it watchable - if nothing else is on. The studio hasn't bleached out all the interest, and some memorable scenes dot the meandering plot. While the visual effects will suffer comparisons to juggernaughts like "The Matrix" or "The Lord of the Rings", they're still credible enough not to grate the nerves.
"Constantine" is also enlivened by an enthusiastic supporting cast. Though he looks half asleep, Djimon Hounsou still steals every scene he's in, making you wish the movie was about him and not Reeves. Gavin Rossdale (of the band "Bush") light up the screen as a poshly dressed demon called Balthazar and Pruitt Taylor Vince employs his patented gentle-fat-guy-with-the-freaky-eyes routine that worked so well in "Identity". Even Reeves, who sticks to just one of his three expressions for the entire film, remains compulsively watchable. Only the normally excellent Rachel Weisz fails to make any impression, spending most of the movie looking slightly confused by what's happening around her.
For a night of junk cinema you could do far worse than "Constantine". It's just a pity that it had to be consigned to the bargain bin and not elevated to a cult classic.
- Alistair Fairweather
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