The DC/Vertigo comic “Hellblazer” is not nearly as well known as Spider-Man, Batman, or X-Men. It’s probably not even as well known as Daredevil or Hellboy, for that matter. Nevertheless, Hellblazer has a very devoted fan base – one that could potentially expand with the release of Constantine, a big-budget Hollywood adaptation of the series.
Keanu Reeves plays John Constantine, a man who was born with the ability to see “half-breeds” – angels and demons that walk the earth, trying to influence the behavior of unsuspecting humans. Constantine was ultimately so disturbed by these visions that he committed suicide. According to Catholic doctrine, anyone who commits suicide automatically goes to Hell, where they spend eternity having their flesh ripped into pieces by little devils. When he died, Heaven wouldn’t take Constantine and Hell didn’t want him, so he was given a second chance at life. He has spent that time fighting off the demon half-breeds in an attempt to earn his way into Heaven someday.
A police detective named Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) approaches Constantine one day. Her twin sister Isabel also claimed to see demons; consequently, she was committed to a psychiatric hospital and jumped off the roof a short time later. Angela doesn’t believe it was suicide, especially after viewing security camera footage of the incident. She wants Constantine to find out if her sister is in Hell and also to determine who drove Isabel to her death.
With the help of Constantine’s young protegee Chas (Shia LaBeouf), they begin monitoring demonic activity on earth in search of clues. Constantine explains that there is a great “balance” in the universe: angels and demons co-exist but never interact directly with humans. Given the fact that several demons brazenly come out of the woodwork as soon as Angela asks Constantine for help, it seems clear that the forces of evil are out to upset that balance. (Minor spoiler alert!) The devil, it seems, has a son who is now trying to cross over into the mortal world in an effort to spread evil.
It’s kind of surprising how seriously Constantine takes its subject matter. The film has interesting ideas about the nature of good and evil. We are told that God and Lucifer made sort of a bet, which created the balance. Each could send soldiers, who would then try to influence humans, but never directly; instead, they could “whisper” their suggestions. In the end, the winner is whichever side influences the most people. Some religious theologians might have a problem with that concept, but it certainly is provocative in terms of the movie. Another theme is religious dogma. John Constantine is technically damned to hell for committing suicide, even though he openly wants to go to Heaven and even takes action to earn his way in. He’s bitter about the fact that a technicality will work so strongly against him. Finally, there’s the theme of redemption. Angela, firmly believing that Isabel was controlled, wants her sister’s soul to be released from Hell. And, of course, Constantine has his own desire for redemption. No one would ever accuse the movie of being a brilliant source of theology, but I admired the fact that it was willing to think about such matters. That’s more than most films do.
Let’s face it: when you’re dealing with the subject of Hell, the possibility is there to get very silly. A lot of movies depict Hell in a way that is unintentionally funny or campy. One of the things I liked about Constantine is that it makes Hell look like a seriously terrifying place to be. The familiars are all present – fiery eruptions, horned demons, the screams of tortured souls – but the special effects look and feel appropriately horrific. The CGI team has injected the effects with a genuine sense of dread. The scenes in which Constantine and Angela talk about going to Hell therefore have much more urgency than they would have otherwise. At one point, Angela asks Constantine to let her see Hell for herself, and because we have already seen it, we feel genuine apprehension about her request.
There is a real intensity to many of the scenes in the film. In order to see what Constantine sees, Angela must be submersed in water (“the universal conduit”) and nearly drowned. Her reaction to what she sees is so intense that she shatters the porcelain tub he places her in. There’s also an incredibly eerie fight between Constantine and a shape-shifting demon made of roaches, snakes, and other creepy crawlies. Director Francis Lawrence (making his feature debut) previously helmed music videos for many of today’s top artists. His skill at creating a strong visual style gives Constantine the edge it needs to avoid seeming silly. Whatever you might think about the movie, it certainly looks hellish.
The thing that keeps the picture from achieving horror movie greatness is the screenplay, which starts off strong and becomes hopelessly muddled by the end. As good and evil collide one last time, the story begins to unravel. I was not sure what was supposed to be happening in some scenes or why it was happening. The plan is briefly explained – something about the devil needing a psychic, a spear, and a lot of water. Multiple characters and objects converge at the mental hospital where Isabel died, but how they all fit together remains a mystery. We certainly see a lot of things happening, yet the logic behind the devil’s plan is sketchy at best. This proves to be mildly frustrating. It would have better for the movie to slow down a little bit, convey the information more carefully, and let the audience grasp the concept before the big finale.
If the details of the ending don’t quite add up, at least we can understand the overall picture. Lucifer wants to take over the world, and Constantine doesn’t want to let him. Their ultimate showdown is different than you might expect – which is good – and the fate of John Constantine thankfully brings the story back to its ambitious and compelling beginnings.
A part of my critical mind tells me that I should not recommend the film because of the lack of clarity that weakens the final act. The fact is, however, that the positives of Constantine outweighed the negatives for me. Not many films deal with issues of Heaven and Hell, of redemption and damnation, in such interesting ways. This is by no means a perfect movie, but it’s stylish, eerie, and better acted than you might expect. It also has at least half a brain in its head. Constantine could have been a stupid, offensive piece of junk, but it actually worked for me. If you’re surprised, so am I.
( out of four)
Constantine is rated R for violence and demonic images. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.
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