There is no better screenplay than The Bible. If someone would simply open up Revelations, work of the storyboards for the Apocalypse, and capture the cataclysm on film, you'd have more conversions than the entire pitching staff of the Boston Red Sox. Let's face it, when it comes to visions of Hell on Earth, unmitigated horror and sweeping plague and pestilence, no one did it better than the writers of the Good Book. Indeed, one of the reasons many religious leaders cite for not depicting the End Times on film is that it would panic the public. Those who were not saved would see how royally screwed they were and more or less freak out. It's awfully hard to get inside someone's wallet when their concept of infinity has just been downgraded to desolate.
In reality, even the basic tenets of the scripture would make for astonishing good genre films. As long as they were done right, with attention to detail and lots of meticulous effects, a ripping quasi-religious experience could be had watching Jesus battle Moloch for afterlife bragging rights. Sadly, no one has managed to make that movie: not the various pious organizations who've poured tons of pray card dollars into trying; not the select few in Tinsel Town who've attempted such a non-secular stance. Don't count on the latest action epic from Keanu Reeves to reverse that trend either. Though it contains a great deal that is inventive and interesting, Constantine is a project with promise that only delivers underdeveloped ideas. No matter its possibilities or potential, this is one deity-themed film that lacks faith in itself, and in its audience.
Ever since he was young, John Constantine could "see" things - things that humans aren't supposed to see. After a childhood spent in and out of mental hospitals, John finally discovered the truth behind his gift. After attempting suicide, the young man traveled to Hell, where he learned that demons are indeed real. So are angels. As he's aged, John has become more and more aware of these "half-breeds" - part human, part spirit - that roam the planet, influencing the living. They are never really a threat to individuals, since the powers in both Heaven and Hell have an agreement. No real emissaries of good or evil can visit the plane of reality. It's a truce between the sides called "The Balance". And John tries to maintain said symmetry.
When the twin sister of police detective Angela Dodson kills herself, it somehow leads to John. It seems that the angel Gabriel and Satan's emissary Balthazar both have a connection to the case, and the reasons are horrifying. It appears Satan's son is trying to find passage into this plane, and it's up to John to stop his progress. But with minions manipulating the forces toward a final showdown, all John can do is try and put the pieces together. It may not be enough to prevent the bringing of Hell on Earth, which is what Satan's son would do if Constantine doesn't stop him.
With all it has going for it, Constantine should be better. It has a powerful graphic novel lineage (DC Comics/Vertigo's Hellblazer titles are no slouches, after all), a leading man with a track record in genre fare (even if the Matrix movies were more Wachowski than Reeves) and the aforementioned supernatural sensation of The Bible to tip the scales. But somewhere along the line the movie loses its way, failing to maximize the potential in its premise. What we end up with is a big budget spectacle that cries out to be epic, yet only ends up being enjoyable. Maintaining entertainment value is not necessarily a bad thing - there are dozens of clunky would-be blockbusters out there that would give their eye candy teeth to be half as engaging as this film. When you have the prospect of crafting the sacrosanct version of a classic comic book movie, being a pleasant distraction is not the highest recommendation.
A lot of the problem with the film comes in pacing. First time director Francis Lawrence (better known for his video work with J-Lo, Brittany Spears and Aerosmith, among others) mistakes slowness for seriousness, trying to add gravitas to his narrative by drawing things out. Sometimes, it works (Reeves has a knack for holding the camera even when he's basically inert), but more often than not, the languid plot velocity grows tiresome.
Surprisingly, Lawrence takes the opposite approach with his set pieces. Each of our leads (Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz) takes a trip to Hell, and each time, we more or less race through the region. Stunning shots of distant fiery landscapes barely get time to register on our retinas before Lawrence and his CGI minions make with another supped-up sequence. The notion of giving the Underworld a post-nuclear fall-out feel is indeed unique, and it is one of Constantine's many marvelous attributes. After waiting so long to glimpse it, Lawrence should have let us drink in, not shrink away from, its eternal blasphemy.
In essence, all the 'action' scenes suffer from a similar hurried approach. Perhaps the only well executed and realized sequence is the opening exorcism, where Reeves helps rid a teenage girl of her internal demon. Here, Lawrence lets logistics rule, giving us a real sense of what John Constantine has to go through in order to ply his trade. Similarly, when our hero hooks up with his own paranormal "Q" - a character named Beeman played with nicely nuanced quirks by Max Baker - the attention to detail and the little asides tossed into the conversation make the scene soar. But these are the rare instances where Constantine gives life to its theological themes. Other moments meant to signify the constant clash between the baneful and the beatitude are more one-off than overpowering. An attack by "vermin man" (a human-like figure made completely of bugs, snakes and rats) is CG-awful, and a nighttime attack by winged devils is over before it really starts.
Indeed, a lot of Constantine feels like a test reel for the eventual real deal. Djimon Hounsou, who is usually a dependable actor, gets a few brief scenes as Midnite before being shuffled off into insignificance. Pruitt Taylor Vince plays some manner of messed up priest, paying for his sins (alcoholism? pedophilia? lack of faith?) by becoming Constantine's medium. But before you know it, he's gone as well, leaving us with the impression that he was more of a paranormal pimp (he apparently finds Constantine "cases" to work via the rampant voices in his head) than a three-dimensional necessity to the plot.
In reality, most of the characters are like this - sketched out and barely embraced. Even when casting calls attention to the desire to be different - Tilda Swinton personifies androgyny as Gabriel - we end up with something more sketchy than sensational. Our co-lead, Detective Angela Dodson appears more like a mirage than a foil for our leading man, though it's not really Weisz's fault. She's given very little to do except appear sullen or sad.
Still, it's Reeves amazing presence that holds the movie together. Though he's basically riffing on Neo and Johnny Neumonic, the actor's work here is very good. Honestly, he shouldn't be so compelling. After all, Constantine doesn't have huge dramatic monologues or touching, heartfelt moments of clarity. No, he's just a son of a bitch bastard, smoking like a chimney, dying of lung cancer and desperate to get into Heaven. Now this might lead one to expect a kind of against-type anti-hero turn by the actor, an attempt to move away from the Matrix universe of stoic seriousness and over into something a little more...fun.
Sadly, this is not the case. Reeves is deadly solemn here, and though many people find his cold calmness a hindrance, it really helps to overcome some of the movie's superficiality. After all, if your protagonist is battling against the very forces of God and Satan to maintain "The Balance", he's not going to be quipping like Schwarzenegger, cocky like Willis, or moping about like Stallone. Certainly he'll be a little off center, and this is exactly how Reeves plays him.
Lawrence does frequently show some of the visual invention that obviously landed him the directing job in the first place. Though he's far too hip for the dogmatic nature of the subject matter (his idea of a way station for half-breeds is a bar that would have looked tacky in 1978) he does have a good eye for composition and framing. Several of the shots in Constantine call attention to themselves with their arcane aesthetic sense, while some seemingly stumbled out of Filmmaking for Dummies(R). While it may seem like Lawrence is constantly placing his camera above or below the action, he can cut together an enthralling sequence (the opening discovery in the desert is a good example of this).
Constantine is also peppered with stifled symbolism, an over reliance on water and wind that will have you convinced that both Jehovah and Beelzebub love a good typhoon. Lawrence also loves to leave loose ends. Several intriguing ideas are introduced into the plotline (like Gavin Rossdale's elegant evil entity Balthazar) that fail to pay off in any exciting ways.
All of which leads back to the opening premise - so much more could have been done with this story. Taking DC and Vertigo out of the picture for a moment (the movie has to try and be faithful to their vision of the character, after all) there is nothing more fascinating than the ultimate battle between good and evil. No, not some personification of same (although Peter Stormare's turn as Old Scratch is a stitch) but a real balls-to-the-wall reinvention of the struggle between monsters and angels. Remain true to the theology and the extremes inherent in The Bible. Build up a believable world where the interactions between the warring factions have distinct fall-out amongst the mortals. And then give us a man who can see it all, whose will is being slowly drained by the death, destruction and despair all around him. Amplify the realism with CGI and quality F/X and you've got some manner of masterpiece. Unfortunately, Constantine comes up short in almost every one of those areas. It's definitely worth consideration, but you'll be more frustrated by the opportunities it misses than the chances it takes.
As with most modern Hollywood releases, Constantine looks perfect. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen image is flawless, with nary a pixel out of place or a single edge enhanced. However, this does not mean the movie is faultless from a visual standpoint. Constantine does suffer from what can best be called "CGI-strain". Current computer animators do not understand the concept of restraint. If they can fill the sulfurous air of Hell with an infinite amount of smoke, ash, debris and digital froufrou, they will do it - then add just a tiny bit more to prove their Pentium processing power. Hell is indeed overdone, as are the scenes centering on bugs and other demon-based bedlam. Filmmakers need to come back to "physical" effects reality. Sure, they may have looked cheap, but here's wagering Stan Winston's headless Hellspawn would look a lot better than the character mapping muddle we get with some of these beasties.
For a movie that tries to impress with its noir-like mood and atmosphere, Constantine's aural attributes are not really all that striking. The Dolby Digital 5.1 has lots of somber subwoofer heft, but the channels get very little workout here. Unless a demon is flying by, or an angel is spreading its wings, there is very little directional dimension. Certainly the winds of Hell sweep around with great aplomb, but the overall mix is front heavy and lacking in speaker-to-speaker specialty.
Sprawling across two discs and dealing with almost every aspect of the production, there is a definite theme to Constantine's bonus features. The keyword here is "budget" since it seems almost every decision in the movie, from where certain scenes would take place (the Mexican opening was originally scheduled for Turkey) to how certain F/X were rendered, all revolve around the almighty dollar. This makes for a rather simplistic presentation, since almost every creative facet was under more financial than artistic control.
Disc 1 contains a commentary, a music video by A Perfect Circle, and two trailers. Disc 2 is made up of Behind the Scenes featurettes, production-specific documentaries and a rather obtuse dissection of the hero myth. We even get a mini-comic with three Hellblazer stories and some character bios. Together they generate interest in Constantine's origins and how the movie was made. But overall, the attention to detail is not as pronounced as the focus on the fiscal policy.
During the alternate narrative track over the film, director Lawrence is joined by one of Constantine's producer, Hollywood's greatest hack writer Akiva Goldsman. Recorded separately and then added in later, writers Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello also make an appearance. Goldsman thinks that it's time to tickle ribs as he fills his comments with joke, jabs and other 'amusing' lamentations about the lack of a love interest for Reeves and the narrative nuances that HE would have discovered. One guesses it's just part of an overall smugness that comes from being a highly paid hosebag. Lawrence tries to offer his own take on situations, but can't help but be pulled into the hijinx of his highly strung partner.
Brodbin and Cappello's discussion is where the real information is. The scribes point out instances where the script was changed, how certain ideas were rejected in favor of studio-mandated meddling (making Constantine's apprentice Chas a kid, unlike the middle-aged man in the comics), and where they believe the film actually improves on the Constantine concept. Everyone has nothing but praise for the actors, and can't get enough of the smoldering LA-as-Hell footage. As with most cinematic conversations, the individuals involved lapse into adamant defense of their decisions, but we still get the gist of what brought these men to this project.
Disc 2 takes a more hands-on approach, giving us a chance to delve deeper into the actual nuts and bolts of the production. Since most of this material focuses on the F/X, we get lots of pre-visualization, CGI tests and design illustrations. Divided into certain subsets, each area tries to be as comprehensive as possible. However, some of this material comes across as shallow as a hastily compiled EPK. Under Conjuring Constantine, we get a 16 minute look at DC Comics and Vertigo, along with how the character was conceived for the screen.
The Production from Hell focuses on Lawrence's first time fears (called here a "Director's Confessional") and casting process, the opening sequence in Mexico and a close-up look at the elaborate props crafted for the film. Imagining the Underworld discusses the CGI behind the LA version of Hell, the creation of the Vermin Man, an in-depth dissertation on wing visualization and how one of the film's major set pieces - Angela's abduction from a high-rise office building - was created. Most of these featurettes are brief (5 to 9 mins each) and filled with more talking heads than intricate facets. Still, they do provide an opportunity to see how a studio budgets its fund, sacrificing story and vision for a balance sheet.
The final added content on Disc 2 includes 14 deleted scenes, many of which didn't make the cut for obvious reasons. The most intriguing thing, however, was the removal of a complete character, a kind of otherworldly concubine for Constantine named Ellie. She appears in several scenes, always snuggling up to our hero, suggesting their sexual liaisons with sleazy sincerity. The decision to edit her out of the movie is never really discussed - neither is a last minute transformation for Chas that appears after the final credits (and is shown here in a couple of differing versions). Along with the pre-visualization comparison (with optional commentary by Lawrence) and the aforementioned hero lecture, the Constantine extras are a tad underwhelming. They treat the subject of making the movie in almost the same exact manner as the film itself treats its own topic.
Upon repeated viewings, the dichotomy between what Constantine gets right and what it fails to achieve grows even larger. Once we've experience Hell, or the onslaught of half-headed demons, the movie loses a lot of its initial impact. However, the lack of surprise does allow one to appreciate other elements, like the acting (especially in the ancillary roles) and the desire to delve deeper into the metaphysical realm of the main character's crisis of conscious. Still, the sad fact remains that this apocalyptic action drama just doesn't successfully gel together. In many ways, this material required a director with more going for him than an ability to make Brittany Spears a believable entertainer. Or maybe the movie shouldn't have aimed so high, only to undercut its ambitions when the budget got too big.
Whatever the rationale, Constantine is no classic. It does generate some mid-level amusement and F/X interest in the epic battle it's based on, but has very little to show for it once the final credits role. As it stands, The Bible is still looking for a filmmaker to fulfill its genre destiny. You'll definitely enjoy this journey the first time through, but don't be surprised if it leaves you as quickly as it arrived. Unlike its source material, there is nothing timeless about this tale.
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