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Ignore the Awkward Arc and Enjoy the Style of ‘Constantine’

by Jeremy Mathews

Warner Bros.
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, based on the comic book by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis
Starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Gavin Rossdale, Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare
Rated R

(out of four)

After seeing the trailer for “Constantine,” I was expecting a barrage of special effects with no story. Instead, I found a convoluted story filled with intriguing, if not always fully developed, characters. The film is undeniably silly at times, and will doubtlessly annoy anyone concentrating on story and pacing, but this supernatural action thriller contains striking visuals that make up for the occasional hackneyed action scene.

Its detached hero, John Constantine, played by Keanu Reeves, is a cynical, chain-smoking exorcist in existential turmoil. He makes amusing cracks like a hard-boiled detective as he follows his quest to send demons (or at least half-human-half-demons) back to hell if they unfairly intervene in earthly affairs. He does this not solely out of a desire to make the world a better place, but because he knows that hell exists and is bent on going elsewhere. He has a great deal of atoning to do because of past actions. After years of keeping his lungs constantly filled with tobacco smoke, he’s going to die.

A hokey title card at the beginning of the film includes an unsourced quote saying that whoever holds the “Spear of Destiny” controls the world, then says that the spear has been missing since World War II. Then a man appears to dig it up either in Mexico or somewhere near Los Angeles, where the film takes place. It’s wrapped in a Nazi flag, so you’d think that it’d be in Europe somewhere, but oh well.

The film is based on a graphic novel (which was set in Europe), and takes from it a gloomy atmosphere and oblique angles. Music video director Francis Lawrence has created a neo-noir with demons, angels and “half-breeds,” who are part human and part demon or angel and walk the earth, trying to tip “the balance” of a bet between God and Satan over the souls of humankind.

As he investigates a “soldier demon’s” attempt to cross into earth, Constantine crosses paths with a Catholic cop named Angela (Rachel Weisz), who feels guilty that she’s had to kill so many criminals because she always senses where they are. Her sister Isabel (also Weisz) apparently kills herself, but Angela, who envisioned the suicide in a dream the night before, doesn’t believe it was a suicide since Isabel was a devout Catholic and wouldn’t have committed a mortal sin. She eventually convinces the rude and inhospitable hero to guide her (and conveniently, the audience), through the supernatural world.

Weisz gives a strong performance as the confused Angela, who has refused to acknowledge what seems to be a psychic ability for her entire life. Other esteemed actors appear, including Djimon Hounsou, Paul Taylor Vince, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare and Shia LaBeouf. Not all of them, however, receive the screen time their characters deserve. Since the ending feels dragged out as it is, however, some of the characters should have been cut at the screenplay stage.

There are many references to Catholic theology, although I couldn’t find anything on half-breed demons in’s Catholic Encyclopedia and the “Spear of Destiny” doesn’t quite correspond to the “Holy Lance” relic (which was stabbed into Christ after his death, as opposed to being the real instrument of Christ’s death). Angela makes an indignant comment that of course she knows about the spear that really killed Christ because “I know the crucifixion story.”

Some of the scenes are merely cliché action effects like broken glass floating in the air in “bullet time” and people shooting fancy Jesus guns while the plot rushes to kill off the over supply of characters. For a while, the few generic action sequences actually detract from the overly twisting plot, which unfortunately loses much of its pull by the end.

But Lawrence also creates some impressive moments and one brilliant moment. This nightmarish sequence involves an alcoholic’s attempt to soothe his nerves after a disturbing discovery. He’s unable to do so because the liquor won’t pour into his mouth. The moody cinematography combines with clever scenarios and some creative tongue-in-cheek props, including holy brass knuckles and the version of the Bible from hell, which includes extra chapters, to create a film that’s intriguing even while it’s infuriating, and laughs with us while we laugh at it.

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