Directed by Francis Lawrence
Having heard about this project for months, I never had high hopes – I knew that Warner Brothers wasn’t going to make a high-budget, big-screen version of the John Constantine character – it’s much too negative – I knew that they would clean him up at least a bit. Then I heard that director is principally known for making Britney Spears videos – not a good sign. So I wasn’t expecting a brilliant film, true to the edgy source material.
John Constantine was originally created in the mid-1980s by legendary comic book writer Alan Moore, making a debut in Swamp Thing before getting his own title, Hellblazer. In the comics, Constantine is not only cynical, jaded, chain-smoking, womanizing and alcoholic but is an amoral player in an ongoing battle between heaven and hell. I knew that the filmmakers would make him into a basically good guy – leaving in the jaded and cynical – taking out the womanizing and the hard-edged alcohol abuse – but Warner can’t spend $90 million (reported production budget) and not make the star a good guy – it just wouldn’t wash financially. I did expect a little more in the way of special effects monsters, etc. Constantine is impressive visually on the strength of clever camera work and production design, but I had hoped for more and better CG beasts – they were mediocre by today’s standards for big-budget movies like this.
The basic setup is that an epic battle between good and evil is going on and Satan is sending half-breeds (half-demon, half-human) onto earth to spread the influence of the devil. John Constantine (Keanu Reeves, playing his character much too similar his Neo in the Matrix movies – think tortured-Neo-noir – he even dresses a lot like Neo) learns that Satan is planning a new onslaught using the “Spear of Destiny” (used to kill Christ) and a new way for full-fledged demons to cross over onto the earthly plane. His main partner – the obligatory female lead – is an L.A. police detective named Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz, in a serviceably good performance) whose twin sister has mysteriously committed suicide, muttering Constantine’s name. So we have the clichéd two-very-attractive-people-battling-impossible-odds-to-save-the-world. But even that tired old story isn’t told very well – there are many scenes where due to thin (or non-existent) character introduction where it’s hard to connect the action to the plot as a whole. So large chunks of the film come across as neat looking set pieces with no connection to each other.
Constantine isn’t a bad looking movie. There is one highly stylized bar scene – a nightclub where these half-breeds come to play, fighting in the bar being strictly verboten – this club is a visual delight full of nasty characters, presided over by a cool cat named Midnite (Djimon Hounsou.) Another scene that had plenty of visual punch: when Neo, sorry… Constantine helps Angela to see the half-breeds, he does it by nearly drowning her in a bathtub – another wham-o visual! Constantine lives over a bowling alley – with lots of cool-looking mechanical equipment visible – nice set design, well photographed. Director Francis Lawrence’s MTV background is pretty obvious – he definitely knows how to hit the viewer with a succession of impressive images. The problem -- the story seems weak, derivative and poorly told. If he had worked with a writer/producer who (a) was a talented storyteller, and (b) had the clout to make changes, things might have been different… even given the constraint that they had to make Constantine into a good guy, betraying the source material.
The bad screenwriting hit rock-bottom with the character of Constantine’s sidekick, Chas (Shia LaBeouf.) In the comic book, Chas is an adult. For this movie, they turned him into a teenager who drives a cab in a nasty part of L.A. looking like a fresh-faced little cherub. “Cute” is the worst thing that can be injected in either a comic like Hellblazer or in the movie they should have been trying to make – totally out of place. The most ridiculous character I’ve seen in quite a while, “Chas” is a transparent attempt to cull favor with younger teenagers. Keeping in mind that this is an R-rated film and that most older teens (at least the comic book fans) will find the character an annoying compromise, it’s obvious that they are making a play for the 12-to-14 crowd. And, of course, Warner would deny trying to market the film to young moviegoers.
Was it social commentary to have Hell depicted as full of burned out cars? I liked it… nice touch. Another punchy scene: early on when they are establishing who Constantine is, he exorcises a demon from a young girl, traps the demon in a mirror, then throws the mirror out a window.
A common problem I have with sci-fi/action/fantasy films is poor development of the villain(s) – in this case they had a pretty good idea -- having Satan’s son come to earth but failed to let the viewer actually see him let alone get to know much about the character. They put Satan himself (Peter Stormare) onscreen for one scene but didn’t do much to develop the character. Most of the half-breeds and monsters running around attacking the good guys came across like zombies out of central casting – totally unoriginal and not even funny since I’ve seen that stuff so many times. Another character that should have gotten more screen time is Constantine’s technical go-to guy, Beeman (Max Baker in a fine performance as a quirky counterpart to James Bond’s “Q”.)
Film is a highly collaborative medium -- Francis Lawrence has tremendous talent but needs help in the storytelling department. Constantine gives the moviegoer many visually thrilling scenes but the main characters seemed stock and plain and the plot essentially predictable. This movie is a better comic book adaptation than the recent Elektra but saying that is damming by faint praise.
Photographs are copyright Warner Brothers.
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