A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 252 – Constantine

Constantine – November 7th, 2010

I honestly don’t know where people ever got the impression that this movie was based on comic books. I mean, this is obviously not the John Constantine from Hellblazer. He’s American, and not nearly witty enough, and he pronounces his name “Constanteen” and he’s played by Keanu Reeves. So really, why would anyone think this is about the John Constantine from the comic books? I have no idea. I mean, just because the folks who made the movie said so, that’s no reason to believe them.

Really though, if we’re going to go accepting that this is an adaptation of the Hellblazer comics, we’d have to accept a pretty radical alternate universe setting. I’m capable of it, as evidenced by my relative lack of continuity-based issues for many of our other comic book movies. I could run with that here. But really, I think here it’s much more akin to O Brother, Where Art Thou? than, say, X-Men. It’s taking cues from the source, but using it more as inspiration than anything else. And that’s all well and good, but I didn’t review O Brother, Where Art Thou? on the basis of how well it cleaves to The Odyssey. I reviewed it on its own merits, which are many. So I’m going to try and do the same here. I’m going to ignore what I know about the original John Constantine and not try to compare Keanu Reeves’ performance to that particular standard.

Contrary to the impression I might have given when I reviewed Much Ado About Nothing, I do like Keanu Reeves. He’s not the most facially expressive actor in the world, but I guess that’s one reason why he’s done a lot of action roles (that and his fused vertebrae – which I read somewhere make him have to move a certain way that comes off as “dynamic” on screen and thus attractive to action films). But I like him. He seems like a genuinely nice guy and he does do determined well. He would not have been my first choice for an American John Constantine (that would be Denis Leary, if you’re curious), but for the purposes of this movie? I actually quite like him. He doesn’t need to be facially or emotionally expressive here. The character is remote and closed off. A loner. Even his faithful sidekick, Chas, has to beg to be included in his jobs. This is not a guy who makes friends easily or wants to in the first place. He’s got a job to do and that job is sending demons and half-demons to hell. It’s serious work. You need to put on your Serious Face to do it and Reeves has a decent Serious Face.

With Reeves in place as our hero, the demon-busting John Constantine, the movie really does a decent job setting up a supernatural action mystery involving a sinister angel, a suave demon, the spear that killed Jesus Christ and a pair of psychic twins. One of the twins is dead, having jumped off the roof of a building. The other is a police detective and meets John by accident, but soon enlists his help in trying to find out why her sister, a devout Catholic, would take her own life and condemn her soul to hell. Along with some help from a few associates of John’s (all doomed, of course) she and John uncover what seems to be a plot to allow Lucifer’s son entry into the human world. As one might guess, this would be bad.

The big climactic scene at the end really is rather good, as is the rest of the action. All through the movie you get to see this world Constantine inhabits, where carrying ampoules of holy water is a good idea for self defense and exorcisms are a daily event. All the things you don’t want to believe are real, are real, and he’s constantly dealing with the bad side of it all. My one complaint with the movie’s worldbuilding is that while a goodly amount of it is shown to us through John’s interactions with other people who move in the same circles, one of those people is his sidekick. They should have just named Chas Mr. Exposition. He’s often found following John around, telling him things John certainly already knows. Yes, thank you for telling us the background behind Midnite, Chas. Certainly we wouldn’t have known he’s a neutral party from the multiple times he says so himself. It’s a frustratingly clunky bit of writing in a movie that’s not brilliant by any means, but also isn’t usually that much of a hammer to the head.

Moving away from the not so good stuff, let’s end on a high note and talk about Gabriel. Now, I’m not blaming Shia LeBeouf for Chas’s lines or role of exposition machine, and we’ve gone over how I feel about Keanu. I have no complaints about Rachel Weisz as Angela and Isabel. But I love Tilda Swinton as Gabriel. Love. Her. Swinton is an odd one, to be sure, but that’s what makes her so eminently perfect for the part of the androgynous, mysterious and quixotic angel Gabriel. I love every scene Gabriel is in and a lot of that is due to Swinton’s performance. It is magnificent, especially the very end and Gabriel’s last words to Constantine. Idealistic to the last.

This isn’t a good movie by any means. I mean, I can think of a bunch of other fantastical action movies I’d put in before this one. But it does have its good points. I think the expectation that it should be more like Hellblazer ends up hiding what the movie does well, which is too bad. If it wasn’t supposed to be an adaptation of the comic books and was merely a supernatural action movie, then maybe it wouldn’t have been quite so derided. So really, the trick to enjoying it is to just let go of the blond British guy and embrace the movie on its own terms. Keanu and all.

November 7, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Constantine

November 7, 2010

Constantine

This is a pretty fun movie as long as you keep one thing in mind from the very beginning: It is NOT an adaptation of the Hellblazer series of comic books. It claims to be – it has the Vertigo logo in the opening credits. But the John Constantine of Hellblazer is not this one. Oh, it’s pretty darned close, but this isn’t the John Constantine I know and love. I’ve been a fan of Constantine since he first appeared in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing books. I was delighted when he showed up in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Books of Magic. Constantine is like the DC universe answer for Dr. Strange but with a more modern bent. He’s a man trapped in the occult world by his mastery of it, which is a very cool concept. The Constantine of this movie is as enigmatic and self centered as the one in the books, but he lacks that sardonic English wit which defines the character for me. And he doesn’t have a proper overcoat. And although I haven’t read all of the Hellblazer books I’m pretty sure that John never had a plucky side-kick in the comics. Just sayin’.

Still, this is a fun movie which I think I would enjoy a whole lot more if the main character weren’t named John Constantine. Let’s just imagine that it’s about an exorcist named James Carpathian. James is the guy – well connected in worlds not quite outside our own – you call when something seriously weird is going on. He’s on speaking terms with “half breed” angels and demons – beasts not quite of Heaven or Hell who walk the Earth in spire of a Truce between the ancient adversaries. He knows all the occultists and other such people who deal in the supernatural. It’s the world of the movie that I most enjoy. The film does a great job establishing the rules and the players and the stakes as it introduces James and his apprentice Chas and the stoic police-woman Angela who is caught up in some kind of supernatural showdown.

Angela’s twin sister Isabel has committed suicide, which according to the rules of this movie damns her to Hell. Eventually this leads Angela to go to James, since he seems to understand things beyond her ken and might know some way to exonerate her sister. Of course it all turns out to be part of a plot involving the Spear of Destiny and the son of Satan, who would very much like to leave Hell and come up to Earth. There’s conniving and scheming and then something else that doesn’t really feel right for the Hellblazer books: a big Hollywood action scene with magical holy shotguns.

If, as I’m doing, you overlook the lead role there’s some very nice casting. Keanu Reeves as James (not John) is actually a pretty cool anti-hero. He plays a cold-as-ice but also slightly haunted character, which he’s well able to do. There’s a lot of posing in front of wind machines and shouting in Latin. Rachel Weisz plays the twins Isabel and Angela (yes, I see what you did there movie… then again it’s not exactly subtle.) It’s a strange sort of role being as she is not quite a romantic interest for James (though the movie teases us with the notion that she might be.) She’s a tortured character with a steel core, which must have been fun to play – it’s unfortunate that the costume department never once let her button up her blouse though. (Seriously – the camera spends so much time looking down her shirt that it made me feel kind of dirty just to watch it. I had to avert my eyes.) Shia LaBeouf is his usual personable self as the totally superfluous Chas, who I think is mostly there for expository purposes. It’s always a pleasure to see Djimon Hounsou, who plays a very small role as one of James’ occult contacts. He just brings such power to the screen with his glares. And there’s my favorite part of the movie – Tilda Swinton. She plays a half-breed angel named Gabriel who is instrumental in the plot, and I pretty much just watch the movie for her scenes. She imbues Gabriel with such a complete devotion that you completely accept that the angel could make no other choice.

This is a movie that’s just fun to watch. There are so many great effects and images. I mentioned that there was a lot of posing, and what I meant to say is that many scenes are set up in service of certain iconic moments that stick in your head long after the movie is over. Director Francis Lawrence is anything but subtle. There’s a strong motif of crosses throughout the film, as well as a great deal of attention to reflections. (Even reflections of letters that look like crosses at one point.) It’s a heavy-handed way of saying “Look! This is a movie about the battle for Heaven and it involves worlds that reflect our own!” But the effects are so well done and the images on the screen so vivid and cool that I never really minded. The glimpses of Hell as a windy, dusty, parched apocalyptic twist to our own world are awesome. There’s a cool battle with a demon made up of snakes and bugs and things which is introduced by a crab that walks over James’ hand (because he’s dying of cancer, get it?) The climax at the end may have shades of the Blade movies to it, but at least it has a cool ending that feels like it fits the rules established about the movie’s world. The film is, if I may be forgiven for the cliche, the very definition of a feast for the eyes.

I like this movie. I like the world it is set in. I even like the stoic hero at its core, as long as I don’t try to think of him as John Constantine. It’s a cool sort of action fantasy take on such horror classics as The Exorcist and The Omen and well worth watching. Oh and hey, if you’re a fan of Shia LaBeouf (and they guy must have some fans, right?) be sure you stay through the credits for his post-credit appearance. I always like post-credit stuff.

November 7, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment