Not All Fire and Brimstone


directed by Francis Lawrence

starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Djimon Hounsou, Shia LaBeouf, Pruitt Taylor Vince,Gavin Rossdale and Peter Stormare

Warner Brothers

Anytime a popular, book, play, TV show or comic book is adapted for the big screen by those know-it-all Hollywood types there is bound to be dissent and anger amongst those who care deeply for the subject matter. In the case of Constantine, (the film adaptation of DC/Vertigo comic’s longest running title, Hellblazer) there are plenty of nay-sayers in queue waiting to pummel, pounce and puree Hollywood’s version of their beloved comic.

Having said that, it is best to make a distinction between the two. The comic is set in England and features a blonde and haggard John Constantine as an unscrupulous, chain-smoking magician-about-town who fights evil on his own terms with complete disregard for the lives he destroys in the process. The film follows along those lines except it is set in Los Angeles and features the not-so-run-down Keanu Reeves. The folks at Warner Brothers and DC Comics have a lot riding on this film. It’s their first foray into comic books films for quite some time and they want it to work. Plus, having Constantine do well at the box office sets up the big Batman re-launch in the summer. In addition to that, Keanu Reeves needs to build off his success in the Matrix films with another successful franchise. They should cross their fingers.

The plot is tenuous and confusing. John Constantine (Reeves) is a man with no real place in the world of the living or the dead. Constantine was born with a special gift that allows him to see the demons, angels and half-breeds that walk amongst our waking world. Overwrought by the responsibility of this gift, a young Constantine unsuccessfully attempted suicide, which marked him for Hell when his time on Earth ends. As a result John has walked the Earth with a chip on his shoulder repeatedly trying to redeem himself and ensure his entry into Heaven.

As the film opens, a disillusioned and bitter Constantine’s hopes for a reprieve head south after he is diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. As if that wasn’t enough, Constantine becomes concerned about increased demonic activity on our ‘neutral’ plane (our world is supposed to be neutral from interference from either ‘side’). His concerns come to fruition when he is attacked by a demon.

His luck changes however when he meets Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), who reluctantly enlists his help to save the soul of her twin sister, Isabel, dead of an apparent suicide. Angela believes her sister’s death was no accident and appeals to Constantine to help her discover the truth.

This is no easy task however, because battle lines are clearly being drawn and war is on the horizon. Constantine’s pushing, poking and prodding causes a stir in the Underworld causing all Hell to break loose. Before it’s all over, Constantine confronts his personal demons, literally, as he battles both the Angel Gabriel and the Devil himself to save Isabel and redeem his soul.

Constantine works as a suspense film because it has all the integral elements of a good scare flick: horror, religious iconography, dark humor and of course, lost souls needing redemption. Although Constantine is short on action, it is long on effects and mood. The film’s somber tone perfectly sets up the scarier moments, which is good because most of the story happens at night, indoors or amidst drab surroundings.

Acting-wise there’s not a whole lot to jump up and down about. Keanu Reeves isn’t terrible, but he’s not as convincing as he could be. Somehow he manages to look like he’s in over his head throughout the whole film. Although he is a talented actor the script and dialogue didn’t really fit with his performance. On the other hand Tilda Swinton, Djimon Hounsou and Pruitt Taylor Vince are terrific. As far as the plot goes, if you don’t pay attention you get lost fast. This is primarily because many of the comic’s better characters and story arcs have been slammed together to form a somewhat muddled mess. There is simply too much going on. The audience gets lost disseminating good from evil and Hell from Heaven. They also must endure constant psychobabble about the neutrality of the Living World and if that wasn’t enough, they then must wade through the emotional baggage of John Constantine’s tortured soul as he searches for redemption.

For example, Chaz (Shia LaBeouf), Constantine’s wise cracking conscience, and the powerful magician Midnight (Djimon Hounsou), two of the comic’s richest and most vital characters are turned into fast and almost meaningless sideshows. Despite having important roles in both the comic and the film, the former archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) has also felt the crush of editing and plot pruning. Only Swinton’s devious charm and unscrupulous performance saves the character from the abyss of obscurity. With more screen time she easily could have stolen the film.

Despite these shortcomings, Constantine somehow sticks with you for a while because it does the one thing that any good ‘hero’ film does to a certain extent; it entertains. This may be because director Francis Lawrence comes from a video background and utilizes those techniques (mostly quick edits, dark lighting and strange angles) to great effect, which draws even the moist dubious viewer into his world.

Constantine looks great and does a fantastic job of offering fun, fright and folderol for those who want pure escapism from their film or love a good supernatural thriller. Those expecting another Matrix-like breakout from Reeves or something similar to the comic book should be wary because this is not a film with substance and they should probably look elsewhere.

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