Constantine (2005): Francis Lawrence Directs Keanu Reeves

Warner studio is responsible for the first big artistic flop of 2005, Constantine, a pretentiously muddled, emotionally hollow, nonsensical film about Catholic angst, heaven and hell, and a cancer-ridden hero who’s been to hell and back.

Poorly directed by Francis Lawrence, from a screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, Constantine is based on characters from the DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer Graphic Novels, but in its locale, anti-hero, ideas, and even visuals it owes a lot to the far superior noir Blade Runner.

Born with a gift to recognize the half-breed angels and demons that walk in human skin, John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) attempted to take his own life in order to escape the tormenting clarity of his vision. Having failed–and resuscitated against his will– he finds himself back amongst the living. Marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life, Constantine patrols the border between heaven and hell, hoping to earn his way to salvation by chasing away the devil’s foot soldiers. Constantine is no saint. Disillusioned by the surrounding world and at odds with the one beyond, he’s a hard-drinking, hard-living bitter man who scorns the very notion of heroism.

Constantine fights to save fellows’ souls but he doesn’t want admiration or sympathy; all he wants is a reprieve. When a desperate police detective, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her twin sister (also played by Weisz), their investigation takes them through the nourish landscape of demons and angel of contemporary Los Angeles. Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events, Constantine and Angela become inextricably involved, seeking to find peace at whatever cost.

“What if I told you that God and the devil made a wager, a kind of standing bet for the souls of all mankind” Constantine says early on, setting the premise for the preposterous narrative. As viewers, we are asked to imagine that life on earth is in a state of detente, a balance between good and evil that has been scrupulously maintained through the ages. According to the film’s dubious philosophy, since humans choose their own paths, they seal their fates for the realm beyond, with some bound for heaven, while others for hell.

As part of this divine wager, both God and the devil are barred from direct contact with the human race, though they are allowed some influence or interference through intermediaries. Neither fully angels nor demons, these earthbound peddlers are half-breeds. As Constantine explains: “Suppose you were very good in life, or very bad. They wrap your soul up in human skin and send you back on missions.”

The seemingly ordinary half-breeds slip freely through life, sharing the roads, holding jobs, and engaging in relationships with their human hosts. They look just like other humans; people could see them, and be friends with them, without even knowing it. That’s what makes Constantine different–he can spot the half-breeds. Ever since childhood, he’s had the unique ability–for him, it’s a curse–to recognize these beings beneath their fragile disguise. He sees their true faces, either beatific or demonic. Driven to suicide in his youth, by a terrifying burden that no one understood, Constantine hoped for the peace it would bring but got instead a two-minute tour of hell before being resuscitated and snapped back to life.

Knowing the hellish fate that awaits him when his life on earth ends, Constantine is desperate to change it. Denied access to more traditional path to salvation, he resolves to earn entrance to heaven by waging war on the demon half-breeds. An expert in demonology and black magic, as well as skillful con man, Constantine uses sacred relics, his brain, and physical strength as weapons to send countless hordes back to the underworld.

“Constantine” attempts to connect with young audiences (fans of Keanu Reeves) by presenting an unlikely hero in the mold of “Blade Runner”‘s Harrison Ford. His motivation for fighting evil is not benevolent, stemming from his desire to buy his way into a heaven that’s been closed to him. When his efforts bear no effect, he becomes increasingly cynical.

“Constantine’s screen character must have attracted Keanu Reeves to the story as a follow-up to his “Matrix” trilogy, a series whose chapters got worse and worse. Warner may hope for “Constantine” to begin a new franchise, depending on the film’s commercial success, though it’s likely be slapped with dismissive reviews from most critics.

Sporadically, Constantine springs to life with some visual vitality and humor. Yet the story is not involving intellectually or emotionally, and its ambiguity and portentous ideas will fly over most viewers’ heads without leaving any imprint. The story’s mysteries and contradictory characters don’t work for a pseudo-religious tale that masquerades as a supernatural sci-fi-thriller-actioner. The first reel, in which the number of characters is small, and the dialogue long and heavy, is particularly weak.

Things improve slightly with the appearance of the angelic Gabriel (the tall, elegant Tilda Swinton), God’s gatekeeper on Earth, who continually denies Constantine’s salvation. Unmoved by Constantine’s private war and aware of his selfishness, Gabriel admonishes repeatedly that he can’t buy his way into heaven, while Satan’s emissary Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale) mocks Constantine’s futile efforts. When Balthazar finds out about Constantine’s recently diagnosed terminal lung cancer, he relishes with malevolent glee.

Though mostly on his own, Constantine has a few allies, such as Chaz (Shia LaBeouf), his faithful driver and wannabe apprentice. Intrigued by Constantine’s world, observed from a distance, Chaz makes up for his lack of experience with vast knowledge of the religious, waiting for the day when Constantine would finally ask for his help.

Also welcomed is Constantine’s former comrade, Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), who could be more helpful if Constantine hadn’t burned that bridge. Once a faith healer and witch doctor, Midnite claims neutrality, offering his nightclub as a sanctuary for half-breeds of both camps, while keeping his true loyalties to himself. It’s Midnite who warns Constantine to respect the balance.

Called to the site of another demonic possession by an old friend, Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a weary priest, Constantine prepares for yet another exorcism, a young girl in the grip of the underworld. Though Constantine has performed many exorcisms, yet this one feels different. With disbelief and alarm, Constantine realizes that the demon is fighting not for possession of this child’s body but for a way to break through it and enter the physical world, which is a breach of the age-old balance.

En route home on the dark streets of downtown Los Angeles, Constantine is attacked by a full-fledged demon. As he ponders the inexplicable, he is approached by Angela Dodson, a police detective with her own questions about her sister Isabel’s mysterious suicide. Raised to believe that suicide is a mortal sin, Angela cannot accept her sister’s suicide, even though footage from the psychiatric hospital shows Isabel leaping from the roof.

Based on rumors Angela has heard about Constantine’s links to supernatural events, Angela seeks him out against her skepticism, hoping he might be able to explain mysterious death. But, having just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Constantine isn’t interested in helping her. He knows he’ll land in hell because of taking his own life. However, after the initial rejection, he begins to see Angela as the key to the bizarre demonic activity around them. The balance is breaking down, and something needs to be done about it quickly.

Unfortunately, Constantine fails to exhaust the dramatic potential of the source material, Vertigo’s long-running monthly series. With all the excitement of a more complex anti-hero at the core of the story, Constantine remains a cipher at the end. Constantine is based on an intriguing idea–that of the world behind the world–but the execution leaves a lot to be desired, from the mumbo-jumbo screenplay to the stale direction and unsatisfying acting of all concerned, including Reeves, who seems bewildered as a screen character, which is good, but also as a performer, which is not.

Known for his music videos, Francis Lawrence goes for the visceral and visual elements of the story. A film noir devotee, Lawrence, like other directors who segue from videos and commercials, shows greater ease with visual design than with narrative and dialogue.

Lawrence claims to have been inspired in his imagery of the underworld by the paintings of Bruegel and Bosch. The film is visually clever: When Constantine is in Angela’s apartment, and he momentarily crosses over into hell, it’s the hell version of her apartment that he’s in, but when he goes out into the streets, it’s the hell version of Los Angeles.

The producers are proud of telling a story in which nothing is black or white, and in which the characters are not conventional, such as a hero who doesn’t want to be a hero, a man who loathes the devil and fights the most hideous demons, yet can’t escape his own bad habits, like smoking, which is literally killing him. However, attempting to be a visceral and intellectual entertainment, “Constantine” is a major failure on both counts.