(Francis Lawrence, USA, 2005)


“Heaven and Hell are all around us”. John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) explains this with some urgency to his reluctant companion, Angela (Rachel Weisz), in Constantine. He is being neither metaphorical nor metaphysical: as John can show with the mere flare of an appropriate light or a brief immersion in water, thousands of hideous beasts are waiting to “cross over” onto the human plane.


But where are the corresponding signs of Heaven? Like so many mainstream fantasy-horror movies, Constantine is timid about depicting Heaven (beyond a few fluffy clouds and beams of light), thus upholding the Old Hollywood taboo about showing God. This leaves the field wide open for Lucifer (Peter Stormare) and his legion, who get all the best tunes here. Even the solitary embodiment of Pure Good – Tilda Swinton in a marvellous turn as a wing-sprouting Gabriel – appears to be quite a shifty trickster.


This is the feature debut of music video director Francis Lawrence. Wisely for his commercial prospects, but perhaps unwisely for his critical reputation, he has chosen to work in a genre disregarded by many tastemakers. Like Hellboy and Catwoman (two underrated highlights of 2004), Constantine is an extravagant fantasy adapted from a comic book series. It is best appreciated on a big, loud screen.


Constantine is a chain-smoking, hard-boiled type who professes only to care for himself. But he worries enough about the infringement to The Balance – the cosmic rule dictating that foul and divine beings alike cannot enter our world – to want to restore it. And for that he is going to need not only his usual crew of eccentric sidekicks, but also the superior supernatural power of Angela – a cop troubled by her ability to intuitively spot and unerringly shoot the bad guys.


The film bursts with inventiveness. Lawrence has tried, and largely succeeded, in giving every familiar situation some twist or heightened aspect. This goes all the way down to the smallest gestures and incidental details. Early on, a thrilling exorcism scene is constructed around glimpses of Constantine’s cigarette burning away in the corner. A later moment when Angela confronts her twin, Isabel, is given added poignancy by the way she carefully arranges the strands of hair falling down over her face.


But where this movie truly excels is in its sense of place. The locations, whether real or artificial, induce a mood that is poetic as well as menacing. The library where Constantine confronts Gabriel, the bowling alley where our heroes hide out – even the troubling “loading zone” for demons that conjures a mass of “illegal aliens” waiting at Customs – all plunge us into the plot’s reality-shifting vortex.


It is too easy to fault Constantine for sometimes seeming like a patchwork of elements from other films: a prologue in Mexico that evokes The Exorcist (1973/2000), a nocturnal action scene recalling Pitch Black (2000), a note of Keanu the Messiah left over from the Matrix series, etc.


But the whole is greater than the parts, and – for a change – I find myself longing for a sequel. [2020 Postscript: The sequel has not yet happened, despite the announced, continued interest of Lawrence, Keanu, and Guillermo del Toro!]

© Adrian Martin February 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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