Constantine (2005)
Directed by Francis Lawrence

Artistic Value: * ½
Entertainment Value: * *

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John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), a cynical, chain smoking exorcist, is beginning to suspect that something serious is happening in the underworld when a young policewoman, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), contacts him after her sister, a devout Catholic, has committed suicide. The two subsequently learn that Satan's son is planning to escape from hell and take over the Earth.

Not only is Francis Lawrence's Constantine a dreadful, tedious movie, but it is also grossly offensive.

Before going on to the film's innumerable shortcomings, it is only fair to mention that it does have a few intriguing elements. Constantine may not be good, but its virtues are sufficient to prevent it from being entirely boring.

The special effects, for one thing, are often amazing and are genuinely eerie. In one scene, for example, Constantine is attacked by a demon that has possessed a multitude of snakes and insects and has caused them to crawl over and on top of one another so that they form a vaguely human-like body. Elsewhere, during a visit to hell, he is surrounded by hordes of naked fiends, the head of each of which has been cut off above its cheeks, and, in several other sequences, he fights against demons possessing some individual or another in whose body the fiends can be seen wriggling about and pressing their faces against the inside of their host's skin.

A number of the director's presentations of supernatural happenings are also well crafted. Constantine's passing from this world to hell through a basin of water and his awakening in Angela the ability to see demons by submerging her in a bathtub are oddly creepy and effective. Moreover, the sequences in which these events are depicted really do have a sense of magic to them.

Regrettably, such details are about the only things in the movie that are likely to appeal to the viewer. The story the director tells is particularly uninspired. Constantine wanders about meeting individuals each of whom gives him a clue or two about the mystery he is investigating. Even though the film is structured by this revelation of one clue after another, it always seems vaguely amorphous and unsatisfying. After a while, the tale actually starts to get a little tiresome. Constantine visits the underworld. Constantine acts grumpy in a hospital. Constantine tries to bargain his way into heaven. Constantine kills a demon, and so on and so on.

Sadly, even if narrative faults were not enough to spoil the movie, the quality of several of the performances certainly would. Keanu Reeves is particularly wooden. Although he is not close to being at his worst here, he is still pretty bad. Peter Stormare, who appears as Satan in the film's last moments, is, however, grotesquely irksome. In fact, the man is so bad that if the viewer is not too embarrassed for him, the actor is likely to make him laugh. Even Shia LaBeouf's annoying portrayal of Constantine's goofy sidekick, Chas, is better.

Lastly, I should note that while I do try not to let the ideology underpinning a given movie prevent me from enjoying that work, there are times when I find a particular system of beliefs that is being expressed so repugnant that I simply cannot ignore my own sensibilities. I am sad to say that such a problem has arisen for me with Constantine. The story Lawrence tells assumes the accuracy of the doctrines of the Catholic Church, and an important thread of the film's narrative depends upon the acceptance of that church's teachings on suicide, that those unfortunate persons who, because of mental illness or the unremitting cruelty of the world, have committed suicide are condemned to hell where, according to the movie, they will be torn apart by demons throughout eternity. Whatever the director's personal opinions on this subject, I cannot but be shocked that he has thought it would be a good idea to give these noxious, hateful dogmas such an important role in his work. Although I by no means advocate censorship, I do think that it is a sad testimony on the film makers' values that such evil superstitions have been treated seriously and expressed in a mainstream release. I suppose I should, at the least, be happy that the director, screenwriters, and the like did not think presenting some ethnic group as biologically superior to others and those others as fit only for slavery or extermination would make a clever plot device.

Constantine, whatever its mild virtues, really is best avoided. It is a pretty bad film.

Review by Keith Allen

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