In Constantine Keanu Reeves returns to battling the Devil, something he did pretty well with Charlize Theron before The Matrix came along. Theron has moved on to winning Oscars, but Keanu’s limited range leaves him running around in a cinematic circle where he plays the same Neo character over and over again, only thrust into different harrowing situations.
This time Neo is called John Constantine, differentiated from Keanu’s other Neo outings primarily by a nasty penchant for chain smoking. Keanu Reeves’ range may be limited, but that doesn’t mean he can’t bring something special to the screen. The man has real presence, so much so that though he takes the same things to each character, those things are enough to keep your attention riveted. Constantine is a demon hunter and a premiere exorcist who’s trying to send enough demons back to hell to buy his way into heaven, but that exposition is irrelevant since it is Keanu’s physicality, not this somewhat wasted story that holds your interest.
The film opens with expository text about something called “The Spear of Destiny”. Should you bother to read it, you won’t remember it, and won’t be any the worse for it. Introductory reading over with, Constantine moves on to a Mexican dirt farmer who finds an ancient spear of invincibility. It also has the nasty side effect of making him a puppet of the Devil. So of course random Mexican number one starts walking to LA. I would have stopped to hop on a donkey, but I guess Satan doesn’t like burros.
In Los Angeles is John Constantine, exorcising demons and slowly dying of lung cancer. Born with the power to see the spiritual and supernatural world, he’s trapped between them in what is described as a chess game battle for power. John however, is only concerned with himself. As a youngster, the things he saw drove him to attempt suicide. Suicide is a mortal sin, and though he failed in his attempt he is now damned to hell for it. Being sentenced to a place of fire, torture, and damnation for eternity is pretty bad, but it becomes a lot worse when you’ve had a hand in sending a lot of people there. Satan has a grudge against John, and can’t wait to get him into his clutches. John on the other hand, is trying to curry favor with God by taking out the Devil’s children. Unfortunately for him, Heaven isn’t easily bought off.
Into the midst of the usual demon smiting, Constantine throws in a save the world plot, involving the aforementioned Destiny Spear. Much of this feels poorly thought out, just know that Satan’s son is trying to cross over into our world and needs that spear, and a hot girl whom John ends up protecting to do it. This provides plenty of opportunity for Keanu to be Keanu, stalking about like an action-jackson scarecrow, his slight frame providing a focus for visual feasting. Keanu even looks cool while he’s coughing up blood, something Constantine does a lot in between slamming packs of cigarettes.
The comic upon which Constantine is based, presents John as a dark, selfish, disturbed character prone to cursing and basic scum-bag behavior. The movie attempts to work some of that in, but seems to have toned it down to suit Keanu’s normal “whoa” attitude. Yes, he might throw someone the finger now and then, but it’s only another variation of Neo, were he to be really pissed off and terminally sick. I don’t mind that, because I like Keanu’s Neo and could watch him in just about anything, even this. But there’s not a solid enough story here to wrap around him. It feels like random mumbo jumbo heedlessly thrown into a script where rituals are performed with strange abandon and lack of explanation. For instance to contact hell, it seems that all you need to do is stick your feet in a bucket of water. To make the process even easier, try putting a cat in your lap.
Performing these water based rituals invariably results in the appearance of demons. Constantine’s demons come in two forms: gay guys in nice suits, or boorish CGI creatures with half-heads. The film’s well dressed homosexual demons are interesting (if vaguely representative of a homophobic bias), but the CGI freaks are bland. We’ve seen strange things with pointy teeth in CGI before, and done a lot better than these. CGI rendered Hell fairs little better, though the brief glimpses we’re given of CGI Heaven hold some interest. It’s nice to see Heaven as a place with shiny skyscrapers instead of those rather tedious looking puffy clouds.
Constantine is a movie of uncertain motivations and confusing plot. It works only because Reeves intrinsically holds so much interest whenever he appears on screen. He’s centered and physical, even if the movie sometimes seems to be uncomfortably listless. Reeves makes Constantine cool, he just doesn’t get much help from the flick. The movie is occasionally engaging, but it never pushes forward into anything more. It’s a straight, by the numbers line of half-explained spells and supernatural presentation that never has any real purpose beyond pushing through to the next scene. The idea of a guy trying to buy his way into heaven by fighting the demons of hell is good, but this movie doesn’t take the idea anywhere other than the usual set of world saving scenarios. It’s a script that could easily have been lifted from any TV show written by Joss Whedon and then scrambled up to make less sense. Constantine is a little fun, but never builds any real momentum and thus simply ends with a flat, forgettable little whimper.