Constantine neither heavenly or hellish
By Lady Liberty
** out of ****
Let's be honest for a moment: There are a lot of critics that just hate Keanu Reeves. I'm not one of them. A friend of mine says that she'd happily buy a ticket to watch Mr. Reeves sort laundry. I'm frankly probably going to be sitting right next to her for the show. That being said, Constantine is yet another film based on a comic book character (actually, it's the Hellfire series of graphic novels in this case), with the potential to leave the resulting movie open to great success (Spider-Man) or great failure (Daredevil). Constantine falls somewhere between those two extremes.
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a tortured man in more ways than one. His dubious gift is an ability to see half-breed demons and angels who mingle with humanity undetected by most. As a result of a bet between God and Satan, these half-breeds work their subtle influence on mankind to tip them either toward good or evil. After having spent his youth seeing such shocking creatures, Constantine can no longer stand up to the fear and the strain, so he kills himself. Medical personnel manage to resuscitate him, but not before he's spent two minutes in hell. In fear of ending up in hell as well as what could happen to all of humanity if Satan wins the bet, Constantine devotes the rest of his life to finding and sending demons back to hell. His greatest hope is that his efforts will be sufficient to get him a ticket into heaven whenever it is he dies again..
Angela Dobson (Rachel Weisz) is a Los Angeles police detective and a devout Catholic. When her twin sister, Isabel (also played by Ms. Weisz) commits suicide, Angela thinks her death must really be the result of a murder. She knows that suicide is a mortal sin, and she can't believe that her equally devout sister would have risked her immortal soul in such a way. Her search to prove Isabel's innocence leads her indirectly to discover John Constantine. Hoping that Constantine can provide her with some answers, she's pleads with him to help her to see what he sees. It's a wish Constantine fears Angela will regret making, but he agrees to do what he can.
Meanwhile, the demons and angels have mysterious plans of their own. Though Constantine is sure that something is amiss, he can't quite put his finger on it. The angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) warns Constantine that, whatever happens, he hasn't yet done enough to guarantee heaven; the demon Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale) is anxious to confront Constantine for his own reasons. But neither side can entirely stop or control the inevitable events set into motion when a mysterious spear is discovered by a scavenger in Mexico.
That doesn't mean, however, that Constantine won't try. With information that comes to him via a priest with whom he's worked in the past (Father Hennessy, played by Pruitt Taylor Vince), help from an underground character who is one of the few who knows of the ongoing battle between good and evil (Papa Midnite, played by Djimon Hounsou), and the eager assistance of an apprentice who's itching to take over Constantine's work himself (Chas, played by Shia LaBeouf), Constantine is reluctantly ready to take on Satan himself (Peter Stormare) if he can just delay hell on earth awhile longer.
It's true that Keanu Reeves doesn't have the great range of an actor like Johnny Depp. But he's smart enough to choose roles that showcase what he can do, and Constantine is no exception. John Constantine is depressed, but he's also reconciled to his work and his fate. He feels little out of his fears of feeling too much. And while Reeves might not be able to pull off some wrenching soliloquy onscreen, he's more than able to show conflict just under a stoic exterior. He's also a convincing action star (Reeves again did most of his own stunts). Rachel Weisz was, you'll recall, terrific in the Mummy movies. Here, she's just as good but without the underlying comedy of those earlier roles. The supporting cast is also good, most particularly Gavin Rossdale (the lead singer and guitarist of Bush has had some limited acting experience, but this role is his largest to date and he acquits himself well) and Tilda Swinton who manages to personify the androgynous —and committed—archangel.
The special effects are superlative, particularly Los Angeles as hell. Although the demons and the damned are well rendered, we've seen so many good effects in recent movies that we're almost matter of fact about such screen appearances. But the burning landscape that comprises the hell that's just the other side of our own earthly plane is spectacularly rendered and, though you'll see hell more than once in this movie, it will be nowhere near enough to really appreciate the perfection and awesomeness of the effects. The cinematography is gorgeous and some creative camera angles add to the surreal feeling of much of the film. The sets, too, are creative and brilliantly rendered (check out the dwelling of the "gadget man" Constantine relies on for various goodies, and you'll see what I mean).
The one real flaw in Constantine is an entirely lackluster script and the thin plot it tries to convey. Constantine has so much potential, and the execution of the film is so good, that the script is almost sinful in that it's bad enough to take down what could have been a really great movie. If you're a fan of the Hellfire graphic novels, by all means see the movie so as to give reality to the scenes you've doubtless imagined. If you're not, Constantine is never-the-less a showcase of special effects that are well worth a gander. But if you're looking for the movie Constantine could have been—and should have been— you'll have to look elsewhere, or pray for a sequel that's penned by a much better writer.
POLITICAL NOTES: There's nothing like two great powers fighting over a largely helpless (and ignorant) constituency to bring thoughts of government to mind. Much as Constantine focuses on a bet between superpowers for the fate of humanity, so, too, are Americans largely mere chips in the pockets of the major political parties and philosophies. Neither God nor Satan apparently care what happens to individuals (though Constantine himself is a rare exception) much as powerful politicians care little for any one or two of us. Instead, Constantine is about the search for ultimate authority over humanity even as politics has become largely an attempt to garner the ultimate authority over American citizens. Sins are punished, sometimes out of proportion to their severity, much as crimes can result in comparable fates via a judicial system run amok. And those ignorant of the behind the scenes machinations of angels and demons are little different from those who buy the "for your own good" rhetoric coming from politicians who are really doing no more or less than infringing the last few unalienable rights still remaining to American citizens.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Constantine is rated R for "violence and demonic images." Though the movie is likely far too frightening for little ones (particularly those who've attended Sunday School classes of the sort that warn of hell and damnation for even the smallest tykes), there's no nudity or sex and little rough language. The effects, as I mentioned, are very real. But those 12 and older should have a firm enough grasp on reality to understand that movies are just movies. As long as you don't bring a kid (or an adult, for that matter) prone to nightmares thanks to having seen nightmare creatures depicted on screen, Constantine shouldn't prove a problem.
Lady Liberty's Oscar Picks
The Academy Awards will be given out on Sunday, February 27. Many people view these particular awards as definitive of great movies, performances, and cinematic accomplishments. Sometimes they are. On the other hand, many people don't realize that the Academy consists of only a relative few members from each discipline (total Academy membership is only a few thousand), and that many of the members are considered "old school" and mired in Hollywood politic. As a result, awards are too often given for "lifetime achievement" rather than for a particular performance; and awards are withheld or granted at times based on punishment or reward rather than for a single deserving nominated accomplishment.
Taking those facts into consideration, I'm not just going to pick the major awards. I'm going to tell you who I think will win, but I'm also going to let you know who I think should win. In many cases, there's a difference.
BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
BEST WRITING - ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
BEST WRITING - ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
I freely admit that my predictions for the "will wins" could prove a little off. The Academy has been known to surprise the public before, and it will doubtless feel free to do so again. My picks for those actors and pictures that should win, however, are solid. There weren't a lot of great movies this year, but there were a couple; and there were a few truly stellar performances as well. Let's hope the Academy ignores politics and considers greatness as it should, and that those who deserve the Oscar get to go home with one.
Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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