Film Notes: Constantine

Constantine the movie. I never would have imagined it possible. The background character whose visual was based on Sting and became the street-level magic man of the Vertigo universe is somehow transformed into Action Hero. The filmmakers don’t get it: Constantine is a magical conman, not an action hero – which comics were they reading? Constantine (or JC, as I shall call him from now on) should know all the angles and be working everybody against each other, not having to sort things out and find things out; he should be pulling the strings and have tricks up his sleeve, not run around playing catch up (even if that helps the spoon-fed audience). The closest the film gets to how it should be is at the end with Lucifer.

Let’s have a look at the plot. The Spear of Destiny is found under church in Mexico (after opening titles say it has been lost for 50 years). JC comes in to do exorcism when girl in tenement found climbing walls. It involves putting a holy thing on her body then putting it in a mirror, which the demon tries to smash to escape, but when JC throws it out the window to land on the ground, this smashing means that the demon is deported back to hell. How the fuck does that work?

Meanwhile, a cop, Angie Dodson (Weisz), goes to confession about killing perp, then dreams about her sister (in a psychiatric hospital which has a big cross on top of it) jumping off the roof. She sees JC when in the hospital (he has aggressive lung cancer) to identify body. Then sees him in church library when she asks for Catholic burial, even though suicide is mortal sin. JC is there to see Gabriel (Swinton) about getting into heaven. Dodson goes to see JC after hearing his name whispered on footage of her sister killing herself.

(In between, JC is attacked by a demon in broad evening, which is not supposed to happen because they can’t be on this plane. He goes to Papa Midnite’s (Hounsou) bar to ask for help, only Midnite isn’t forthcoming, claiming neutrality.)

JC tells her to go, but then notices demons in vicinity, which must be to do with her, so goes after her to explain what is going on. Then all lights go out in street, except for a shop with a statue of the Virgin Mary in it, and she can hear the wings and talons of demons. JC gets rid of them by lighting a bandage wrapped around his hand, which illuminates them before vapourising them. She vomits due to the smell of sulphur. As there is something, he decides to see if the sister is in hell, but looking at her cat while having his feet in a bowl of water. When he arrives, he picks up her hospital tag and senses she is a twin, which makes things more sinister.

His fat priest mate who got him the exorcism gig goes to see body of dead sister, after ‘sighting’ the importance of it. When he does, he sees a sigil on her arm. He runs out and starts to hear noises in his head, which he thinks will be blocked by drinking, except that no booze goes into his mouth. We see Balthazar flit around and then the guy starts to die, shouting Constantine and stabbing the design of the sigil into his hand for JC to find. We find out that he had been drinking all that time, which killed him, only it was the affect of the half-breed Balthazar on him. Dodson gets called to the scene, and JC goes with her, so sees his friend. Then finds sigil, and explains to his mate Beeman, from whom he got weapons earlier. He then takes Dodson to the scene of her sister’s death, because she would have left a message only she would find. Dodson remembers that they used to leave messages on windows that could be revealed by breathing on them. This turns out to be true, and it is ‘Corin. 17.1’. This is a passage from the Hell Bible, which Beeman translates from Latin for them as they drive to him. He has already identified the sigil as belonging to Mammon, Lucifer’s son.

Beeman is attacked while on the phone, and is dead by the time they get there. Dodson admits that she used to be able to see things like her sister, but denied it, which aided in having her sister put away. She wants to be able to see these things again. JC helps her by submersing her in a bath, for reasons never fully explained. She succeeds, sensing that Balthazar killed Beeman. JC goes after Balthazar, tricking him into giving up information. But it’s only to get their hands on Dodson, who is whisked away to where she will be used by the holder of the Spear of Destiny to bring Mammon into this world (as JC discovers when he forces Midnite to rethink and let him use the Chair, an old electric chair from Sing-Sing, to sense things).

JC goes with Chas (LeBeouf) to rescue Dodson, killing a load of half-breeds by making the water in the fire sprinklers holy and shooting them with a shotgun made with a cross as the barrel. By the time they get to Dodson, she has been possessed by Mammon who is trying to breach into this plane. They try an exorcism on her to control it. Then, Chas is killed and JC tries to shine light on the situation, literally, only for Gabriel to appear. She apparently has been behind this, helping Mammon bring his hell on earth in order to bring about a misguided test of the love man has for God. She dispenses with JC and is about to pierce Dodson with the spear of destiny to release Mammon, when JC kills himself in order to get Lucifer (Stormare) himself to come and pick up his soul. When he tells Lucifer that his son is about to be brought into this world by Gabriel, he gets angry and stops it. He sends Mammon back to hell and burns off Gabriel’s wings to make her human.

He then goes to ask JC for a favour for stopping things. JC asks for the soul of the dead sister to go to heaven, which Lucifer does. Only, now that he has performed an act of self sacrifice, he gets to go to heaven, giving Lucifer the finger as he does (which at least made me laugh). However, Lucifer refuses to let JC go, sticking his hands into JC’s chest and removing the cancer, thus returning him to life. Dodson is alive too, but they don’t kiss in normal tradition of romantic action films (fortunately). He then gives her the Spear of Destiny to hide (like she would know where to keep it safe) and then chews some gum instead of the chain smoking he has been doing the rest of the film. The end.

There are some good aspects to the film. The complexity of the story reflects the multi-layered density of the original comics, and you get a sense of the mysticism of the book (albeit in a not-entirely convincing cinematic form). The actors don’t embarrass themselves with pantomime performances (why did Swinton take on the role?), even though Reeves is completely the wrong choice for Constantine, and I’m not just talking about the black hair/not being English thing. Keanu is not a good actor, whereas Constantine is a complex character who has to both show emotion and not show emotion and do both while pretending to show something else.

(At least you can understand Keanu, which is more than you can say for Chas or Midnite. And why is Chas involved? Bad enough he’s the token comedy sidekick, but the whole point of the character was that he was supposed to be a counterpoint to JC’s weirdness – an ordinary bloke who drove a cab. His presence here is unnecessary. He’s not the only one: why have Midnite other than he was in the comics?)

The film is visually interesting; director Lawrence has put some thought into bringing the world to life, even if I don’t fully buy into it. However, much like Judge Dredd (which also had a wrongly cast actor in a beautifully realised setting), the film doesn’t stay true to its source and thereby loses the uniqueness of the piece by creating something that could have stood on its own if it didn’t feel bound to use the original names and ideas. If this had been an original piece about a magical conman in LA, it could live on its own merits. By taking the names and cast and setting (but not using them correctly), it makes the film worse by comparison. Only in a LA-set Hellblazer would Constantine chew nicotine gum for an end-of-film punchline.

Rating: VID

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