Lest there’s any doubt that the title bad-boy demon slayer in Constantine is not your father’s exorcist, consider some select details: The perpetually pissed-off antihero drags on cigarettes with an Up Yours attitude mean enough to cow even a champion death-stick defender like Denis Leary or Fran Lebowitz, and he drinks like a bad novelist. (What does it matter, the wretch is damned anyhow because he attempted suicide years ago and then was vomited back to life from death, although not before glimpsing hell.) While performing an exorcism (resentfully, since he hates the spiritual X-ray vision he was born with), he announces, ”This is Constantine, a–hole” the way other more pious types might invoke the Holy Trinity. He’s got terminal lung cancer, he’s antisocial in the extreme, he’s sick of working the streets casting out the devil’s foot soldiers, but he’s hoping the gig will buy him a place in heaven when he does finally kick.
And he’s played by Keanu Reeves, an intriguingly (when not maddeningly) inscrutable attraction: Reeves’ decision to embody yet another bottled-up loner who messes with the cosmos so soon after the Matrix franchise is its own existential puzzle for those who would try to pry into the actor’s career reality. John Constantine is, let’s say, a creation built out of extreme, randomly assigned traits and obsessions, just as Constantine itself is a creation built by rock video director Francis Lawrence (from a script by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello) out of Hellblazer, a long-running DC Comics/Vertigo comic book. The movie is ornate, arbitrary, and fetishistic, too, with the added challenge of being hell to follow for those without access to crib notes. Intellectually, I can admire the emphasis on visual style over plot clarity; I can also appreciate the filmmakers’ intention to create a moving-picture interpretation of the stark, still-picture aesthetic of such comics.
Viscerally, I feel shut out of the fun. And not just because I’m a Hellblazer newbie. (I was a babe in the X-Men’s garden of good and evil not so long ago and have come to love the mutants.) The way I see it, if Constantine isn’t really going to get serious about the fascinating, thorny Catholicism on which it is so somberly grounded, then it’s just another comic-book movie, and it might as well lighten up. That’s right: This is another busy, clever, fanboy-oriented production that congratulates fanboys for their geek knowledge, then probably disappoints even them, because it’s no Hellblazer. It may look good, it may show off some cool stuff (visions of Hades, demons with heads sliced open to resemble serving bowls of oatmeal). But it has no authentic interest in its own subject matter. Instead, the movie sidles up to theological issues of damnation and salvation, the power of prayer and the absolution of sinners, then shrugs and goes for such gimmicky stuff as displaying the war chest of biblically significant ammunition gathered by Beeman (Max Baker), a helpful ally. Impressed by prop-shop dragon’s breath from a real dragon or a big mother of a shotgun fashioned out of a hollowed-out crucifix? Constantine’s got ‘em.
But no one stakes a claim deep enough to matter in the movie’s cold, hard ground. Rachel Weisz plays Angela, a Catholic police detective who seeks out Constantine to help her determine whether her beloved twin (also played by Weisz) really killed herself, but interest soon wanes in the sisters’ loss of religious faith (and combustible interest never ignites between Angela and JC — initials noted). A promising subplot about the relationship between Constantine and his young assistant/driver (I, Robot’s Shia LaBeouf) is set aside until it becomes an afterthought. (Those who sit through the very end of the credits are treated to an after-afterthought kicker.) By the time the story spins to the end in an overload of angel-and-devil-rassling, the constant in Constantine — one man’s ambivalent search for salvation in a world where it’s hard to tell good from evil — has been fractured.
Under the circumstances, the more extreme types carrying passports from heaven and hell have all the fun. Tilda Swinton puts her mesmerizing, androgynous beauty to amusing use as the angel Gabriel; rocker Gavin Rossdale plays Satan’s emissary, Balthazar, like a scummy Wall Street smoothie. I’m not sure what Djimon Hounsou’s powers are as a nightclub owner, but he wears natty threads. And as Satan, Peter Stormare all but yodels in a performance as nutty as anything Rod Steiger might have come up with to entertain himself when trapped in a cartoon.