There is really nothing inherently so wrong with “Constantine” that you would be justified in calling it “awful”. To be sure, there is also nothing really extraordinary about it to justify words like “great” or “pretty good”. In fact, the perfect word for music video director turned film director Francis Lawrence’s comic book adaptation “Constantine” is “good”. Could the film ever have risen above being just good? Yes, there are many ways where this could be accomplished, but the biggest obstacle to “Constantine” achieving greatness, or at the very least “very goodness”, is its star. In short, Keanu Reeves, many blockbuster hits, one fabulously successful sci-fi punk trilogy, and two “Bill and Ted” movies later, still has the acting chops of driftwood.
“Constantine” stars Reeves (“The Matrix” movies) as the titular character, a shady street psychic who once committed suicide when he was a teen, only to be awaken minutes later on his way to the hospital. (Minutes in the real world, but an eternity in Hell, where time stands still.) Now an adult, Constantine has dedicated his life to “deporting” criminal demons that have made their way into the human world and in doing so, tipped an abstract “balance” between the forces of Heaven and Hell. His reasons are simple, even selfish: his suicide years ago has damned him to a life in Hell upon his death, and having already taken a round trip through Hell once, Constantine desperately wishes to avoid making the trip south a second time.
Enter female Detective Angela (Rachel Weisz, “About a Boy”), a latent psychic who comes to Constantine for assistance when her twin sister Isabel (also Weisz) commits suicide. Angela doesn’t believe that Isabel killed herself, because the two are devout Catholics, and like Constantine, killing yourself is the most unforgivable sin for a Catholic, as Heaven’s doors are closed from suicides. Constantine spurns Angela at first (that whole selfish thing again), until circumstances, and the appearance of an evil entity on Earth, draws him back into the fray. With help from some mortal allies, including young cabbie Chas (Shia LaBeouf), Constantine and Angela must battle the forces of evil for the souls of all human beings. Or some such.
You would have to be inseparable from the bible to “get” all of “Constantine’s” many religious references. And as I’ve said many times in the past, I’m a lapsed Buddhist, and as such all the Western religion knowledge I know comes from movies and TV newscasts about how organized religion is bad for your health. “Constantine’s” talk of Gods and angels and demons and all the dogmas of the faith are lost to me, but to give the film credit, the script actually interested me enough to pay attention. And while I still don’t know get all the inside baseball, I can safely say that the script is clever and inventive enough that I tried mightily to pay attention.
But alas, where the script manages to keep my interest, coupled with Lawrence’s generally creative visuals, the fact that Keanu Reeves is in almost every frame of the film takes away from “Constantine” being anything beyond a 3-star movie. Simply put, Keanu Reeves just can’t act. This is made doubly worst because John Constantine is a lost soul, but as played by Reeves, Constantine is a stiff, bland man who can barely say his lines without sounding like he’s swallowing a gerbil at the same time. Interestingly, I can’t help but notice that as he ages, Reeves has developed something of an unsightly twitch in his bodily movements. Perhaps all the stiffness in his acting has translated to stiffness in real life? Oh, the irony.
Where Constantine should be a selfish ass looking out for Number 1, Reeves is a disheveled guy who can’t convince he actually smokes in real life, and no amount of trickery with the lighter will dispel that truth. Without belaboring the point too much, there is little doubt that another actor, someone of, say, Clive Owen’s talents, could have turned “Constantine” from an okay movie into a damn good movie. All the elements are there for a nihilistic, depressing movie of “Seven”-esque magnitude, and all that’s needed is a dark presence. Keanu Reeves can’t do dark to save his life. Despite all the movies he’s done, all the success he’s had under his belt, Keanu Reeves is probably the worst choice to play the down-and-out and unlikeable Constantine, and no one besides fans of Mr. Reeves will fail to notice this.
Yes, despite the obvious constraints of its leading man, “Constantine” is strangely very entertaining. Much of the credit, I believe, is owed to comic book writer Garth Ennis and fellow comic book guy Jamie Delano, who successfully turned a third tier background character into one of comicdom’s most notorious and intelligent creations. (For those looking for more Ennis brilliance, take a look at this “Preacher” comic books.) The world of “Constantine” is really what keeps the audience’s attention, from demon Balthazar (played effectively by Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale) and Tilda Swinton (“The Deep End”) as the sexually ambiguous angel Gabriel, and a host of other interesting characters. Whereas Keanu Reeves twitches his way through the film, Swinton, Rossdale, and Djimon Hounsou (“In America”) as a voodoo priest brings the dark comic book world to life with abundant personality.
Fans of Keanu Reeves will no doubt despise me for having spent so much time in this review pointing out the lacking aspects of Mr. Reeves’ acting ability. To be honest, it’s impossible to separate the general uneasiness of seeing Reeves as Constantine from the movie’s narrative, and hence it’s inevitable that much of this review is spent detailing why Reeves just doesn’t work in the leading role. Having said that, even despite the handicap of having Reeves as the star, “Constantine” is still creative enough to entertain. If nothing else, “Constantine” marks the most successful transition from music videos to film for its director Francis Lawrence since David Fincher broke the mold with “Alien 3”.
Francis Lawrence (director) / Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis (comic book Hellblazer), Kevin Brodbin, Frank A. Cappello (screenplay)
CAST: Keanu Reeves …. John Constantine
Rachel Weisz …. Angela/Isabel
Shia LaBeouf …. Chas
Djimon Hounsou …. Midnite
Gavin Rossdale …. Balthazar
Tilda Swinton …. Gabriel