Wednesday, July 27, 2005
Constantine / ***½ ( R )
Angela and Isabel Dodson: Rachel Weisz
Chas: Shia LeBeouf
Gabriel: Tilda Swinton
Father Hennessy: Pruitt Taylor Vince
Midnite: Djimon Hounsou
Balthazar: Gavin Rossdale
Lucifer: Peter Stromare
Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures present a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, based on characters from the Hellblazer graphic novels. Running time: 120 min. Rated R (for violence and demonic images).
As a former comic book collector I feel as if I’m experiencing a slight advantage over most filmgoers at the metroplex lately with all the comic book superhero and graphic novel adaptations that Hollywood is spewing out. If so many of them weren’t so good, I’d probably find myself getting rather sick of the comic book invasion of the silver screen.
To be sure Hellblazer was one of my top five favorite comic books back in the days when I consumed the graphic literatures in mass quantities, so I bring an already established appreciation to the material. Of course the expectations of a true fan can also work against a Hollywood adaptation. The title character of the new horror/superhero film Constantine is a dealer in the dark arts of magic and witchcraft who concentrates his energies mostly with putting demons and devils back in their place, Hell. The John Constantine of the comic book is a bloody British bastard with almost no friends and an exponentially growing list of enemies, on this mortal coil and in the seven planes of hell. He is the furthest thing from a hero to ever work for the side of good, and he is quintessentially British. His dialogue balloons in the comic often need translation for American readers. So the choice of Los Angeles as the setting for this adaptation and the casting of Keanu Reeves (The Matrix series) in the title role seemed more like Hollywood financial and marketing compromise than solid artistic choices. I still think they missed their opportunity of the perfect American equivalent of the character by not casting Kiefer Sutherland as Constantine. But despite the slightly softer Reeves interpretation of Constantine and the location and culture changes, the filmmakers have done an astonishing job of preserving the mood and atmosphere of the Hellblazer comic book for this film.
In the movie, Constantine describes the human race as pawns in a game played between Heaven and Hell. God and Satan have wagered the souls of all men in a childish bet as Constantine sees it. “The rules are no direct contact, only influence. … Angels and Demons can't cross over into our plane. So, instead we get what I call half-breeds. The influence peddlers. They can only whisper in our ears.” Constantine’s role in the balance between good and evil seems to be to police those who are over stepping their bounds of influence in the mortal realm. But as minions from Hell start appearing on Earth, it seems someone has changed the rules.
The rouge demons focus their brief appearances on an L.A. detective, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz, Enemy at the Gates), after the apparent suicide of her twin sister Isabel. Although she doesn’t believe in Constantine’s claims about God and Satan, Angela enlists his help because she also does not believe her sister is a suicide and events seem strange beyond explanation.
To fit in with Hollywood rules of structure, Constantine is surrounded by a supporting cast of magical helpers, including a sidekick/driver/apprentice, Chas (Shia LeBeouf, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), a supernatural bar tender who favors neither side, Midnite (Djimon Hounsou, In America), an arch rival, Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale, yes, the front man for the band Bush), and a clairvoyant priest, Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince, Identity). Although, in the comic book Constantine’s few friends were normal because most other supernatural warriors wanted nothing to do with him, this supporting cast strikes the right amount of relief for Constantine and is not overused or sentimentalized.
Constantine strikes up an intriguing relationship with the archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, Adaptation) with his desire to buy his way into heaven by the deeds he does to keep the demons at bay. “It doesn’t work that way,” is Gabriel’s response. Some of the best material in the story is taken directly from “Dangerous Habits”, one of the early Hellblazer storylines in which Constantine tricks Lucifer into healing the lung cancer he has contracted from life long smoking. Peter Stromare (Fargo) chews some premier scenery as God’s fallen son Lucifer in the film’s final act.
First time feature director Francis Lawrence actions things up a bit for the film, outfitting Constantine with a cross-shaped automatic weapon. It isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds and, like the supporting cast, this weaponry is sparsely utilized. What is lavishly draped throughout this production is a searing landscape of production design. Production designer Naomi Shohan (Tears of the Sun) and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) envision a sweltering Los Angeles to go along with a blistering Hell where the shimmering visuals nearly summon the stench of brimstone to the viewer’s nostrils. As in the Matrix movies Reeves finds himself swimming in a vibrant CGI world that proves the strengths of the technology, not the distraction of it.
As for how Constantine holds up to those without a previous initiation to this world where mortal men converse with the likes of Gabriel and Lucifer, I’m not really the one to say. The filmmakers provide a compelling story and Constantine himself remains, albeit not quite as intriguing as his comic book incarnation, a solid central figure who struggles with the meaning of his existence and is smart enough to outfox the forces of heaven and hell. Constantine is a dark, moody supernatural noir that remains true to its source material, providing a creepy story that sees mortal men co-existing in a twisted game with angels and devils. Now doesn’t that sound like a fun time at the cinema?