directed by Francis Lawrence
(Warner Brothers, 2005)

This is John Constantine for those who never read or enjoyed the groundbreaking Vertigo comic books. This is John Constantine for those to whom good dialogue and strong acting are secondary considerations in a film. This is John Constantine for people who like special effects and don't care about anything else in the movies they watch.

To begin, let's just clear up the origins of the title character in Constantine. John Constantine, star of the Hellblazer line of comics, is a cocky, blond-haired, chainsmoking English mage in a khaki overcoat. The movie, directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Keanu Reeves, got the smoking part right.

The movie tries to be mystical and oblique, but settles for muttered, hard-to-hear dialogue and murky, hard-to-see scenes. The rudimentary storyline deals with a bitter mystic and exorcist who stumbles on a plan to release Lucifer's son from Hell using the long-lost Spear of Destiny, which was once used to pierce the side of Christ and then vanished into some dusty old ruins in Mexico, but not too far from Los Angeles, where Constantine hangs his hat.

Apparently, the twins Angela and Isabel Dodson, both played by Rachel Weisz, are the leverage Satan Jr. needs to bridge the gap between worlds. Isabel is in an asylum and chooses death before dishonor. Angela is a cop who chooses to stumble around the city with a vaguely distressed look on her face, waiting for Constantine to stop being so damn cryptic and explain what's going on. Weisz, who I've enjoyed in everything I've seen her in 'til now, sleepwalks through every scene.

As Constantine, Reeves is an expressionless stick, a mannequin in a long, black coat. His arrogance where all things Good or Evil are concerned has vanished; he's now a supplicant to God, terrified of dying and going to Hell. Once a trickster, he's now more likely to solve his spiritual problems with a pair of cross-engraved brass knuckles or a gun that shoots dragon's fire.

The supporting cast fares no better in their transition from page to screen. Chas, Constantine's much-abused cabdriving friend, has been replaced by Chas (Shia LaBeouf), Constantine's wise-cracking sidekick and sorcerer wannabe. The diabolical witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou) has been emasculated into a two-dimensional monotone. The androgynous angel Gabriel is now distinctly female (Tilda Swinton). And the suave, charismatic Lucifer is now, as portrayed by Peter Stormare, oafish and dull.

The movie offers posturing rather than plot, and the dialogue is heavily punctuated with dramatic pauses, sentence fragments, dire warnings and bravado. "It's not always like it is in the books," Constantine gruffly tells Chas in one scene; how true. Once again, Hollywood has sacrificed the strength of an existing story, discarding stacks of good material and using only the name to suck in the fans. In the end, Constantine has a couple of good special effects and an endless succession of letdowns.

The final line of the movie is almost painfully bad, although it has the notable merit of bringing two hours of hellish torture to a close.

by Tom Knapp
1 October 2005

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