Judge Clark Douglas has exorcised all demonic references from this review. No ELO lyrics here, kids.
Hell wants him. Heaven won't take him. Earth needs him.
"I know I'm not one of your favorites. I'm not even welcome in your house. But, I could use a little attention right now."
Facts of the Case
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix) is one tough cookie. When there's a demon that proves to be too tough for the priests, when there is darkness beyond human comprehension, and when there are strange spiritual forces at work…Constantine is the guy that everybody calls. But lately, things are starting to get tough. Constantine has been diagnosed with lung cancer. After years of fighting creatures from hell, he's finally going to be beaten by his chain-smoking lifestyle. He may be doing God's work, but he knows that he's going to go to hell. Before that happens, he's got a serious situation to deal with. Someone has found an ancient spear with magical powers. Demons that shouldn't be around are suddenly turning up everywhere. Constantine begins to follow a dark path that slowly but surely leads to the devil himself (Peter Stormare, The Big Lebowski).
You would think that there would be more films at this point based on comics from DC's mature Vertigo line. Vertigo has famously produced some of the most well-respected comics of the past two decades: "The Sandman," "Lucifer," "Preacher," "The Invisibles," "Animal Man," "Swamp Thing," "Fables," "Y: The Last Man"…if we can get Wanted turned into a big-budget motion picture, why not any of these? Anyway, I'm glad that Warner Bros. decided to give a film to John Constantine, who was created by Alan Moore during Mr. Moore's run on "Swamp Thing." However, the character has gained true popularity in his own title, "Hellblazer," which provides a large chunk of the plot material used in this film.
I typically enjoy a thriller or horror movie with a heavy dose of religious elements, and Constantine is no exception. It's just good enough to be worth recommending to the average viewer, and just weak enough to make me admit that it's a guilty pleasure. In other words, it's not as good as The Exorcist, but it is definitely better than End of Days. The film was directed by music video veteran Francis Lawrence, who has since gone on to make the popular Will Smith flick I Am Legend. Lawrence certainly has room to grow as a director, but he does seem to value the idea of giving interesting characters time to develop and grow.
For any faults the movie may have, it provides Keanu Reeves one of his more interesting roles in recent years. John Constantine is a Bogart-like figure who drinks endlessly, smokes even more, and holds a cynical view toward life. Add the weirdness Reeves brings to the table into that mix, and you've got the perfect man to carry what could best be described as "a spiritual horror-noir." When most people attempt to perform an exorcism, they go through the rituals we've all seen in dozens of movies since The Exorcist. Not Keanu Reeves. He leans over a demon-possessed girl and growls, "Hey…it's John Constantine, you a—hole." The demon responds unfavorably, and Constantine barks, "Somebody get me a three-foot mirror!" You gotta love it. Well, you don't, but I do. In addition, we also get delightful supporting turns from Tilda Swinton (as the angel Gabriel) and Peter Stormare (as Satan himself). Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia), Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond), and Rachel Weisz (The Mummy) don't get quite as much to do, but they're all effective.
The special effects in the film are genuinely incredible. I am particularly fascinated by the vision of Hell presented here, which looks like the fiery shadow of Los Angeles (take that, Hollywood?). The demons and angels on display here are as convincing as you could hope for demons and angels to be, and the film is packed with all kinds of eye-catching spiritual paraphernalia. Speaking of how the film looks, I also have nothing but praise for this hi-def transfer. It's very well-balanced and sharp, with very rich, deep blacks and excellent detail. The only liability is a very minimal level of grain present in a few scenes. Otherwise, this print is blemish-free. The sound is effective and engaging, though I do think that some of the dialogue (particularly the stuff delivered by Reeves) is just a bit too quiet in contrast to the music. The solid score by Brian Tyler (with obnoxious "contributions" turned in at the last minute by Klaus Badelt) gets a nice boost here, too. A small annoyance I'd like to note: the packaging mistakenly lists Tyler as "Brian Taylor."
The disc is loaded down with supplements, most of which originally appeared on the Constantine DVD and HD-DVD releases. Two commentaries are onhand. The first is with director Francis Lawrence and producer Akiva Goldsman, while the second features screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Capello. These are informative but a bit on the dry side. I'd recommend listening to the former over the latter. We also get a hi-def exclusive "In-Movie Experience," which combines bits and pieces of the featurettes and commentaries into a single fact-filled companion piece to the movie.
If you would prefer to explore the featurettes on their own, there are quite a lot of them here. As a casual fan of the comic, I enjoyed the "Channeling Constantine" featurette the most, which covers the history of the character from his creation to his first big-screen appearance. In general, I tend to prefer featurettes focusing on story and character to technical "Here's how we did this" sessions, so I also enjoyed "Director's Confessional," "Collision With Evil," and "Constantine's Cosmology." However, the majority of the featurettes do indeed focus on such things as special effects, makeup, etc: "Holy Relics," "Shotgun Shootout," "Hellscape," "Visualizing Vermin," "Warrior Wings," "Unholy Abduction," "Foresight: The Power of Previsualization," "Demon Face," and "Writer's Vision" (surprisingly spotlighting some animated material). Finally, we get a music video and two theatrical trailers. Some of this stuff is a bit dull, honestly, but special effects junkies will find themselves thoroughly informed. Combined, everything runs about 90 minutes. Oddly, we're missing the deleted scenes from other releases. Huh.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie is frankly overstuffed with plot. There is enough material here to support an entire miniseries, but Constantine tries to blaze through it in just two hours. The screenplay should have been a bit leaner, because potentially fascinating material is short-changed on a semi-regular basis. For all the originality that the John Constantine character brings to this party, we still get some rather mundane demonic sequences that feel all-too-familiar (not to mention incredibly hokey). For every neat idea or fresh twist, there's another moment that makes me want to roll my eyes.
This simultaneously smart-alecky and self-important flick tries to have its cake and eat it too, yet the cake is good enough that…ah, forget that ridiculous cake metaphor. I'll just say that Constantine is reasonably cool, and let that be that.
Not guilty. Constantine may now go to heaven if he so chooses, but the jury would prefer that he remain on Earth, kicking demonic butt and such.
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