Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Movie Review

Constantine - * * * 1/2
Opens February 18

Mexico, the present. The desert. Two men in tattered clothes scrounge for loot in the dust. One changes positions. BAM! He’s staring down into a hole in the ground previously covered over with wood and sand. He reaches in and pulls out a Nazi flag, wrapped around a dagger, which looks valuable. Overjoyed with his good fortune, he gets up and begins walking, but we never discover where he is headed. BAM! A truck slams into him, smoke and dust swirl around him and we can barely him out in its density. Then suddenly, the camera zooms to his wrist, on which the glowing red imprinted shape of a circled cross appears and then vanishes again. The man gets up and begins to continue walking. We catch a glimpse at his face. His eyes glow red. Then everything goes black.

This is the opening scene of Constantine, a new film opening February 18 in theaters across the country that deals with the entities of Heaven and Hell and those who inhabit them – and the humans stuck in between. Keanu Reeves stars as John Constantine, a man born with a “gift,” who can see demons and angels on earth. According to the movie, a pact made between God and the Devil at the beginning of time demanded that neither demons nor angels could roam the earth of their own accord, but those who became half-human were allowed access to the world of humanity. These are the ones Constantine sees every day. Occasionally, these half breeds decide they want more, and upset the “balance” the pact creates by possessing humans and wreaking other forms of havoc. It is at these times that Constantine’s exorcism services are called for. He has devoted his life to this cause, though his reasons are not clear at first.

But his world is upset when he meets Angela (Rachel Weisz), a devout Catholic whose sister killed herself, which she cannot believe to be true, as her sister was a devout Catholic as well (though she was sent to a mental institution), and knew that if she committed suicide she was condemned to Hell (in accordance with Catholic theology). Angela wants help – she wants to find out who forced her sister to jump several stories to her death – and she does not take no for an answer. The grudging, “rude” Constantine agrees to help when Angela’s narrative brings angry demons to his neighborhood, and he begins to comprehend a trend in their behavior that goes against the tenets of the age-old pact he fights to maintain. Something is up, and Angela’s sister is, or was, involved in it.

The movie chronicles the adventures of these two souls from Hell to Heaven and back, as well as all of the characters they meet on the way, including the Prince of Darkness himself, played with genius by the great Peter Stormare in a white suit dripping with irony. One of the best things about the movie is that it never takes itself too seriously, as movies dealing with this kind of subject matter can often do, with tragic consequences. Instead, there is even a comedic thread that runs throughout, so that even when we follow Constantine into the depths of Hades, we can expect a cynical joke about it when he gets back.

One of the best inclusions in this story, though its justifiableness in accordance with Christianity is certainly up for debate, is the character of Gabriel, portrayed as one of the half-breed angels by amazing Tilda Swinton, who abandons her scrawny, sweaty, dead-eyed Young Adam character for a spicy, wild-eyed, even scheming angel whose interaction with the main characters has a huge impact on the film’s major conflict, especially toward the climax. These “lesser” characters serve to round out Constantine into a juicy whole, while another movie might be dry and flaky around the edges.

The theology in the movie is suspect, but the ideas put forth in the film are intriguing. And there is a meaningful layer to the film that is quite endearing to this reviewer. Constantine’s personal struggle with redemption – an action in his past keeps him from salvation, though he tries through actions to “make up for” this – is probably the most essential part to the movie, and has a profound effect on the film’s climax, which is, basically, the ultimate struggle between Constantine (humanity), Satan, and God, seemingly all for different desired results. This part of the plot is the essence of the movie, and what gives it an implication and purpose other than telling another “good versus evil” story on the silver screen. We have plenty of those already.

There are, of course, other details that keep the movie from being truly Christian at all. I find it difficult to accept that God would make a pact with the Devil of any nature, but God Himself is barely portrayed in the film, and never actually appears on screen. The focus is on defeating the powers of darkness, and not on defining or justifying God or any Divine Being. The climax of the film also puts forth an idea about the nature of angels that the Bible would never back up. But the ideas are still entertaining, and if nothing else, it is supremely interesting to see on screen some of the things Hollywood believes about the spiritual realm.

It may have no real spiritual merit, but darn if it isn’t fun to watch! I give Constantine 3 1/2 stars. The plot kept me intrigued entirely throughout, and that’s more than I can even say for Spiderman 2, that huge box office smash with the crazy-amazing special effects. ;) Oh yeah, I should mention that the effects in Constantine are excellent, too.

Three more much-appreciated members of the cast: Shia LaBeouf (from Holes) as Constantine’s neglected young sidekick; Djimon Hounsou as another “gifted” person, who tries to remain “neutral” in the war between the Heavenly and the Hellish; and Gavin Rossdale, frontman of the band Bush, who gives Keanu Reeves a run for his money as the suave, handsome human form of the half-breed demon Balthazar (not, in this case, synonymous with Satan himself).

Constantine is based on characters from the DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer Graphic Novels.

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