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Constantine by Francis Lawrence (dir)
Review by Drew Bittner
Warner Bros movie  ISBN/ITEM#: B00005JN3R
Date: February 18, 2005 / Show Official Info /

When seeing Constantine, fans of the comic book Hellblazer will probably not recognize the character (who was created by Alan Moore in the pages of Swamp Thing). Originally based on Sting during his Police days, John Constantine was a semi-lowlife with mystical knowledge and infuriating smugness rolled into one chain-smoking package.

Keanu Reeves is not that John Constantine.

However, setting that aside, Reeves does a fine job of bringing the character's hard-edged wit and dry irreverence to the screen in this adaptation. Far from reprising Neo from The Matrix, Reeves constructs a fundamentally different character. Neo was out to save humanity from the cold AIs running a virtual Earth; Constantine is out to save himself.

As the film opens, a Mexican scavenger comes across an artifact that gives him tremendous power... and he heads north to Los Angeles, for reasons as yet unknown. Around the same time, Constantine exorcises a demon from a little girl, in one of the screen's most physically aggressive exorcisms. The creature is deported but Constantine realizes this was NOT how the game is always played. Something is very wrong here.

Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) knows something is wrong when her sister appears to have committed suicide. Running into Constantine at a hospital and again at a church, where Constantine has a bruising encounter with the androgynous archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), she finds she must seek out Constantine's help.

The two of them are flung headlong into battle against an archfiend's attempt to escape Hell. Their allies are few, including apprentice exorcist Chaz (Shia leBoeuf) and voodoo heavyweight Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), while their enemies are numerous: Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale), agent of Mammon, and a supporting cast of several hundred CGI demons. Constantine travels into Hell twice, giving director Francis Lawrence a chance to overwhelm the audience with a hellscape that is... overwhelming. Burning skies, winds full of ash, endless shrieking and freeways packed with motionless cars-- well, okay, it could be modern LA, but it isn't.

Constantine's other crisis involves his own health and the destination of his soul post-mortem. Suffice it to say that he has a vested interest in his own longevity, but necessity makes his survival a moot point.

The story hurtles toward a confrontation that, if not unexpected, still delivers a respectable payoff in terms of how it's handled. Peter Stormare plays Lucifer, delivering some nifty character bits, in the climactic final scenes.

Weisz handles the task of confronting her own denial and guilt with great aplomb, creating two characters (Angela and her twin, Isabel) and putting them through an emotional wringer-- as well as considerable physical duress. The scene where she's hauled *through* a building plays on the movie's trailer and is pretty effective.

LeBoeuf has a small but very important role, representing an ally who believes in Constantine; his belief in Constantine refuels the supernatural detective's conviction at a pivotal moment. He also has some funny banter and a good one-liner with a sad payoff.

The action is evenly handled, the mood dark but shot through with rays of hope, and the plot moves everything toward a satisfying conclusion, while leaving the door open for a sequel (which is supposedly already a done deal).

Anyone seeking to enrich their understanding of the story would enjoy John Shirley's novelization of the movie, available in paperback. Shirley's a hardcore horror writer himself with an impressive resume, and he brings all that he knows to the page, fleshing out the story in unexpected ways.

Movie and book are both recommended.

PS, rumor has it there's a special Easter egg for those who ride out the credits...

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