This week, Keanu Reeves will light up and step on screen as Vertigo’s resident magician cum con man. The film — which also stars Rachel Weisz as both Angela and Isobel Dodson, Academy Award nominated actor Djimon Hounsou as Papa Midnite and Disney favorite Shia LeBeouf as “apprentice” Chas Chandler — is an amazing visual tableau with charismatic performances by virtually everyone involved … that somehow lacks the script to combine its strong elements into a really impressive whole. Watching “Constantine” is like spending time with a stereotypical cheerleader — it’s beautiful, it’s able to dazzle everyone you know, but it’s suspiciously devoid of smarts when it comes down to it.
Warning: considerable spoilers follow. Consider yourselves warned.
The central problems with the script are threefold: characterization, scope and internal continuity, all of which seem to spring from one common cause (which we’ll discuss in a moment). First of all, for the first two-thirds of the film, everybody talks about the “legendary” John Constantine and tip toe around Keanu like he wielded power akin to Alan Greenspan. However, until the bus flashbacks late in the movie, there’s little done to establish why Constantine has become a name held in such regard. Most of the characters are likewise sketched out with very thin strokes — oh, here’s the well-connected nerd who provides resources, ah, you’re the troubled estranged sister, and so on — straight out of a book of cliches. With such thin characterization, it’s not easy to form a connection with the characters and therefore care what happens to them.
Which brings us to the issue of scope. In the course of this film (and here’s one of the spoilers), the archangel Gabriel decides to help Mammon, the son of Lucifer, ascend to rule both Hell and Earth in order to give humanity a level of suffering that makes them worthy of divine grace and forgiveness. In doing this, Gabriel has to basically rebel against the divine order in a rebellion against the trinity that rivals the Morningstar’s own. To say “this is big” would be like saying that Batman is well-known. However, the causes and effects of a shift in the very hosts of heaven is given a passing glance. When traipsing around with such grand elements, to keep a tight focus on one man’s struggle for redemption kind of invalidates the whole game.
Finally, there’s the issue of internal continuity. In our feature on the film’s screenwriters, they were confronted by many members of the media with an internal inconsistency centered around the aforementioned Archangel. Early in the film, it’s stated that neither angels nor demons can directly manifest on earth nor directly affect any terrestrial events. Yet Gabriel not only openly chats with priests but, as noted, works actively to overthrow the hierarchy of the damned. Likewise, Gabriel is called a “half-breed” at some points, despite Cappello intending for this to be the Biblical personage.
Writer Frank Cappello noted that, through the numerous drafts and changing of the story, that this inconsistency slipped through. Some of the journalists on hand suggested that an angel of Gabriel’s might could effect a fleshly manifestation while not abandoning its position, and that seemed to settle most everybody down.
All of these problems seem to have the same cause: too many chefs in the kitchen. Brodbin and Cappello both talked about how many other hands were involved in the crafting of the script — Cappello noticed that an obscure moment removed from an earlier draft appeared in the comic book adaptation, one he’d almost forgotten — and in doing so, ideas got muddled and hilarity ensued.
These issues only slightly detract from the accomplishments of the work: Gavin Rossdale is deliciously menacing as the “half-breed” demon Balthazar, and Shia LeBeouf’s snarky turn as Chas is made all the more poignant by the character’s final disposition. Rachel Weisz is, by turns, vulnerable and defiant as Detective Angela Dodson, and great supporting roles by Pruitt Taylor Vince, Hounsou and Peter Stormare as the Lightbringer himself. Even the sometimes wooden Keanu Reeves has a kind of sardonic deadpan charm appropriate for the character.
The various inadvertant “homages” (you’ll probably recognize moments from “Aliens” and “The Exorcist” in the exorcism scene, “The Matrix” in Balthazar’s mirror moment, “Men in Black” with the Spear of Destiny’s carrier, “Blade” in the demon-heavy scene at the hospital, and so on) don’t take away from the really dazzling array of images, from the “always decaying” look inside hell to the “brainless” soldier demons to the wonderful scene where the Devil shatters glass in slow motion and walks through the shards like they were harmless raindrops. This film is unabashedly pretty, and that can distract you from the concerns about the script if you’re feeling forgiving.
When pressed by a Warner Brothers executive, I said this film was a 6.5 out of 10 … and if that’s good enough for you, or if you like “scary” movies that don’t get too complicated intellectually, or if you just like visual spectacles, well, you’re gonna like this movie.