Film * Francis Lawrence * Ted “Theodore” Logan vs. The Devil * 2005
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that I know absolutely nothing about the Constantine comic. I know it exists, and that is all. I didn’t even Google it because frankly the movie should stand on its own. And it does, mostly. That said, Constantine has the feel of a movie made with the understanding that the audience knows something about this character or the world already. Some things are hastily explained, or not explained at all, and there are clear references that I don’t understand that undermine the story somewhat. Still, I think I prefer this approach to another tiresome origin story, you know? I’ll take being confused by a more interesting storyline than being bored by another version of the same thing. The two minutes of backstory-exposition are plenty. As for the rest of the movie, well, it fairly comfortably fits alongside the other slowly-paced, dark Christian-fantasy movies of the late 90s and early 00s. As someone who saw Stigmata in the theaters, I’m mostly down.
Here are the things that I understood immediately about John Constantine. He’s a bit of a dick. He likes cigarettes. He does not like demons, or in the parlance of the film, “half-breeds.” Early in the movie, after he does a sick exorcism by trapping a demon in a mirror and hucking it out a window onto Shia LaBeouf’s car, we find out that he is dying of lung cancer and only has a few months to live. Of course he’s still Keanu-handsome and physically fit but he coughs up blood sometimes so you know he’s basically doomed. Eventually, as the film slowly moves along, we discover that our demon-slaying protagonist has a heart of gold after all. Well, mostly. He’s an anti-hero in that he does the right thing, eventually, but is a real douche about it. I can get behind that. Other than John Constantine, Rachel Weisz is there (as twins!) to provide a plot point and also a counter to Constantine’s selfish whininess There is also a lot of strong, scenery-chewing work done by a bevy of character actors, including Peter Stormare. Oh, and the lead singer from Bush is here for some reason.
The reason why Constantine mostly works is the aforementioned scenery-chewing. Pretty much everyone aside from the two leads are hamming it all the way up, and the movie is better for it. Something like this needs to take itself incredibly seriously, otherwise it ends up a total farce. And like, we know it’s silly. I mean, this is a movie about a dude who’s trying to get to Heaven by “deporting” (not a fan of the terminology) semi-demons back to Hell. Gabriel the arch-angel tells him to his face that “he’s fucked.” There’s a fight with a bug-demon in the middle of Los Angeles. It’s all goofy, that’s part of the appeal, but Constantine the movie doesn’t know it. If it did, the same hambone acting would feel trite and irritating. The script would be full of sly wink-wink moments that would suck all the fun out of it. When you’re writing an over-the-top God versus Satan story, you have to go all in. You can definitely have fun with it – see Dogma – but at bottom you have to take yourself seriously.
Look, even for the kind of movie that it is, Constantine is not perfect. This article is not meant as an unqualified recommendation. The biggest issue I have with the movie is that it’s not quite sure what it wants to be. Above I mentioned the movie Stigmata, which is the first time that’s happened pretty much since that movie came out, but it was part of a trend. At the time, which is to say at the turn of the millennium, there was an entire mini-genre of religious horror/thriller movies that have since fallen by the wayside. End of Days, of course, but also things like The Prophecy or The Ninth Gate, and there were probably others I’m forgetting. None of the films were precisely good, but there was a clear fascination with the Christian apocalypse, and specifically Catholic dogma. Part of Constantine wants to be one of these movies, which is not something it should aspire to. All of those movies (with the possible exception of End of Days, because Arnie is rarely boring) move extremely slowly and trade in a sort of religious dread. The other part of Constantine wants to be a comic book action movie. It should have leaned further in that direction.
Perhaps aspiring to be an over-the-top comic book action movie that also takes its Christian apocalypse seriously is too much to ask for. Constantine has its moments, but is simply too muted and muddled to really make an impression. I’m glad the Bush guy is there to act poorly, and that Peter Stormare is there as Satan to lighten up the proceedings. Hell, I’m even grateful for Shia LaBeouf, who disappears for most of the movie only to show up at the end to get murked. There were some fun set-pieces, like the aforementioned bug-demon (oh I don’t like bugs no I do not and that scene was a nightmare) or the brief spurt of action at the end where John Constantine goes all Blade on a bunch of not-demons. Unfortunately these bits were too few and too spread out to keep the overall movie from dragging. Also, and maybe this was just Netflix, but the version I watched was quiet as hell. It felt like two hours of Keanu Reeves whispering angrily at the camera.
I know that overall society is becoming less religious because at the turn of the millennium, people didn’t freak out all that much. A bunch of movies came out that basically asked “what if all this nuttiness is actually true?” instead of what happened in like, 999, when hordes of pilgrims descended upon the Holy Land and really donked up the economy and whatnot. The eternal battle of Good versus Evil, at least on a dogmatic scale, has been relegated to fiction at this point. Look, I know there are exceptions, but I just finished reading both the King James Bible and the mid-19th century history book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, both of which highlighted the incredible role of religious delirium had in society until very recently. All of the above films, Constantine very much included, posit a kind of ancient, lost knowledge of Catholicism, as if the Church is dead or dying. And it’s very much not, as large swaths of South America and Africa can attest, it’s just the role is different. This is a weird thing to hold Constantine accountable for, though, so I’ll just peace out now. The movie’s fine.