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Exorcise This
by Lucius Shepard
February 20, 2005

It may be a case of diminished expectations. You’re expecting an absolute train wreck, a house in which the carpenters have left out a crucial beam or two, or, if you’re lucky, a disaster of such exaggerated proportions that watching it self-destruct will prove amusing. Casting Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, the paranormal detective, a sarcastic chain-smoker afflicted with lung cancer and trying to buy his way into heaven by dispatching demons—that makes as much sense, you think, as casting Pierce Brosnan as Dirty Harry, or Brad Pitt as Genghis Khan, or Leonard DiCaprio as Howard Hughes . . . Well, it makes more sense than that last, but nonetheless it’s a reach. You definitely believe that Jude Law or Denis Leary or half-a-dozen others would do the job better. And they could, no doubt. Reeves can’t act a lick, but he’s the type of inept actor who doesn’t use the materials of a script; rather, it uses him, and for the majority of Constantine’s duration, director Francis Lawrence employs him to adequate effect, a clever prop who looks good in his post-punk gear of black suit, a black trench coat, and a skinny black tie, and who flicks his cigarette lighter as if it’s a critique of the situation that confronts him and offers deadpan commentary. True, Reeves generates an impression of anomie more often than he succeeds in evoking the hard-bitten, haunted, cynical burn-out, but he succeeds often enough to gloss over his stilted, monotone delivery; in fact, he manages some relatively nuanced expressions of surliness, ranging from the mildly disdainful to the downright contemptuous.

Constantine is loosely based on the first Garth Ennis run of the Vertigo comic Hellblazer, which proposes that there exists a standing wager between God and the Devil, kind of a corporate gamble, and the stakes are the souls of all mankind; half-breed deities, part human, part angel or demon, move unnoticed (except by Constantine and a handful of others) among us, attempting to influence the outcome. Just what we need, you say. Another comic-book movie. One envisions a cinematic future in which Spider-Man’s hatchlings have so saturated the culture that people go masked in the street. When will it stop? When will that Mary Worth movie be released? Who will they cast as Beetle Bailey. As Snuffy Smith? But then Hellblazer was arguably one of the smartest adult comics of the 90s, a grim, dark ride that followed the progress of a doomed pilgrim, and if stories told through pictures and word balloons are becoming the literary standard in our culture, we might as well film a few of the good ones. For all of its flaws, Constantine beats the snot out of Josie and the Pussycats.

The movie begins with the discovery of the Spear of Destiny (the same with which the Roman soldier stabbed Jesus) by a Mexican man scavenging under an overpass, who then strolls out into the road and is struck full-on by a speeding car; the car is totaled, the man is unhurt and, possessed by Satan, walks off toward LA to initiate the apocalypse. The scene then shifts to LA, to Constantine performing a brutal exorcism, and to the suicide of a young woman, a psychic, who turns out to be the psychic twin sister of LAPD detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz). Dodson and Constantine hook up when they find that her sister’s death has something to do with (wait for it!) Satan, and together they embark upon an investigation that leads them both to visit hell. Hell, along with crawling, hopping demons, lost souls, and a fiery atmosphere, contains la surfeit of wrecked cars. What this signifies, you’re not too sure. Can Porsches commit adultery? Do Chevys blaspheme and worship graven images? Is the entire spectrum of the automotive world subject to original sin? It’s a cool image, but best not to contemplate the subtext.

Assisting Constantine in his work are an apprentice/sidekick (Shia LaBeouf), who can trace his line back to Jimmy Olson; an alcoholic priest named Father Hennessey (for sure, a comic-book coincidence), who hears the voices of the damned and dies horribly, literally drowning himself with liquor; a geeky oddball (Max Baker), who serves Constantine much as Q serves James Bond, providing him with anti-demon weaponry (a tube that fires dragon’s breath, brass knuckles incised with crosses, etc.) and lives in the back of a rundown bowling alley; Papa Midnite (Djimon Honsou), a witch doctor-turned-club owner whose establishment is neutral ground for half-breed angels and devils, and who sends Constantine on one of his trips to hell via a haunted electric chair. Ranged against him are an assortment of demons, including one composed of cockroaches; Balthazar, the devil’s yuppie messenger boy (Gavin Rossdale); Satan himself, played as a hybrid of mafia don and sinister drag queen by character actor extraordinaire Peter Stormare. And straddling the fence is the archangel Gabriel, given an androgynous turn by Tilda Swinton.

When you first spot Swinton, who occasionally sports an enormous pair of wings, you go WTF? What’s a classy actress like TSwin doing in a devil movie? Of course she’s done the androgyne thing before to good effect, in the film version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, but her presence here is startling . . .and yet this screw-loose casting choice epitomizes the choices that make Constantine work as well as it does. Lawrence, coming to the picture straight from the world of music videos, has—unlike the majority of his confreres—a sense of the story he’s attempting to tell and a good feel for the source materials. He shoots the film from a multitude of crazy angles, but generally manages to keep the plotline centered and right-side-up (that things become muddled in the third act is due more to the script than to his direction); and he succeeds in retaining the essence of the comic’s black humor, laying in a number of wonderful moments and set pieces. “God is a kid with an ant farm,” says Constantine, and then goes wafting off to claim his heavenly reward (a claim eventually thwarted) while giving Old Scratch the finger. The man carrying the Spear of Destiny walks past a “Got Faith” billboard, then makes his way through a field as grazing cattle drop dead around him. Father Hennessey, seeking to still his voices, finds that bottles refuse to empty their contents into his mouth. Stormare leaves a trail of tarry footprints, as well as a track of chewed scenery, behind him. And, in one of the film’s best sequences, Constantine holds Dodson underwater in a tub for an inordinate length of time, nearly drowning her, to facilitate her latent psychic ability and allow her to see into Hell.

Constantine probably won’t appeal to most fans of the comic book, because it’s nowhere near as character-driven, and it likely won’t appeal to secularists because it’s way too comic bookish in its hodge-podge, mumbo-jumbo treatment of spiritual matters; but it ought to please the rest of America and sell tons of tickets. It generates little suspense and contains several scenes that flat don’t work. But as dumb fun with a dark side, it satisfies more than most of the filmic translations from the comic book genre. It’s better than Hellboy, better by far than Elektra and Daredevil, than Mystery Men and most, if not all, of the Batman flicks. Better even (dare I say it?) than your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, a movie whose statement and restatement of youthful angst grows old after the first half hour and, when you saw it, resurrected the old Marvel jingle in your head and left you singing repetitively, “. . . is he strong? Listen, bud! He’s got radioactive blood . . .” until you came close to driving your girlfriend nuts. Then again, maybe you’ve seen too many of these Movies for Young Lads Hooked on Video Games and Incapable of Reading and Writing. Maybe you’ve accepted that Dumb Is the New Intellectual. Maybe you’ve begun to drink the Kool-Aid that makes everything on-screen seem peachy just so long as there’s sufficient bang-bang or blow-up or cool stuff. Maybe in the course of reviewing rotten movie after rotten movie, you have literally devolved and one day soon you’ll be reduced to sweeping up in a mission and staring happily for hours at a water stain on the ceiling, seeing there your life’s resolution.

Or maybe it’s simply a case of diminished expectations.