Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBoeuf, Tilda Swinton, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Djimon Hounsou, Gavin Rossdale, Peter Stormare. (2005, R, 118 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 18, 2005
Woe unto John Constantine. Born with the ability to perceive both the diabolic and beatific creatures that walk among us and the attendant inability to keep his mouth shut, he was thought mad and sent to an asylum, where, in despair, he attempted suicide. Clinically dead for two minutes, he was afforded a glimpse of the hell awaiting those who commit Catholicism’s most mortal of sins and promptly straightened up and flew right. That was 15 years ago. Now, as played by Keanu Reeves, the Los Angeles-based Constantine polices the borders between heaven and hell, deporting wayward demons from the earthly plane in the fragile hope that he might buy his way back into God’s good graces and thus avoid the blistering hell that awaits the former suicide. Whoa, indeed. Adapted from Alan Moore’s groundbreaking DC/Vertigo comic title, Constantine is sure to divide the series’ most rabid fans – most noticeably, the character is no longer a blond-haired, post-punk Brit modeled on Sting – but those who can set aside their preconceptions will discover one of the more artfully designed comic-based films in some time. Moore, famously, had his name pulled from the finished product in protest over what he viewed as unpardonable sins against his storyline, but for all its divergences from Moore’s sacrosanct text, Constantine the movie is remarkably faithful to the book’s grim tone. This is not the Marvel Universe, where Spider-Man triumphs and things are Fantastic. Constantine may hobnob with the angel Gabriel (Swinton, in a breathtakingly outré performance) and consort with the damned (among them Bush frontman Rossdale), but he’s also a cynical and hard-drinking nicotine fiend who’s just learned he has terminal lung cancer. With precious little time left to him, on this plane at least, he can hear Lucifer’s tread behind him and he’s getting anxious about that one-way ticket. Sulfur’s in the air, though, and as more and more Hell-spawn begin to make incursions onto the Earthly plane, Constantine hooks up with a similarly-gifted LAPD detective (Weisz) whose recently deceased sister may hold the key to an impending Luciferian blitzkrieg. Constantine will likely hold far more interest for devoted fans of the series, but it’s not necessary to have read the books to appreciate the film’s sumptuous visuals and art direction – courtesy of production designer Naomi Shohan and art director David Lazan – which range from a genuinely awe-inspiring vision of a hell in the perpetual grip of a nuclear blast to a “neutral” heaven ’n’ hell dive bar overseen by Hounsou’s voudoun Midnite. As always, the devil’s in the details and Constantine is loaded to the tip of its pointy tail with splendid little flourishes and a sense of pacing that lets the surreal events mount slowly and with ever-increasing gravitas. The big question, of course, is Reeves himself. With his black trenchcoat and jaded, doom-centric mien, he pulls it off, capturing, however improbably, the sheer, soulless exhaustion of a man who has nothing left to lose and everything to gain. Of course, he’s no longer playing in punk rock band Mucous Membrane, as Alan Moore would have it, but all in all it’s a fair trade-off. This Constantine has far more important things to do.