Where The Exorcist, The Prophecy, and even Kevin Smith’s Dogma have all ventured, Constantine gives the middle finger and delves into darker territory.
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) knows he cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven upon his death because his soul is already obligated to Hell, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to buy his way back in. John can see the devils that cross over from Hell (even though they’re not supposed to) and knows how to banish them back there whenever they take a too direct interest in the affairs of humankind. When Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) approaches John about her sister’s suicide from a hospital psych ward, both become entangled in events that could cost them both their souls, but the forces of darkness have no intention of stopping there.
Devout believers in all the dogma associated with Catholicism might be put off by the blasphemy contained in the story. Then again, the film doesn’t condemn Catholicism so much as allows the main characters to play within “the rules,” such as suicides being doomed to Hell, humans having to ask forgiveness for salvation, and Biblical artifacts being used to fulfill prophecies. Genre fans will find plenty of demonology and detail to sink their teeth into, but viewers less experienced in the whole Heaven vs. Hell routine may hear nothing more than mystic mumbo jumbo.
While the backdrop is all demons vs. angels, the story is actually about redemption. The character of John Constantine is perfectly preserved from his origins even though many details from the Vertigo “Hellblazer” comics that inspired him have been changed. John is self-destructive, resolved to his fate, yet still seeking a way out; Keanu Reeves successfully inhabits the doomed chain-smoking demon fighter and makes him real. Add in the strength of character that Rachel Weisz adds to the mix and you get a gritty, hard-boiled, supernatural detective story that really shakes the Pillars of Heaven (with apologies to Jack Burton).
If all the story weren’t enough, there’s the special effects. Unlike most of the previous films using Catholicism as a backdrop and “the city” as an allegory for industrialized evil, Constantine goes straight to Hell… literally. Like a never-ending nuclear blast that has become its own ecosystem, this Hell is a shadowy reflection of the real world wrought with wind, ash, and flame. In terms of special effects, “hell” manages to be beautiful, plausible, and horrible all at the same time; it earns its R-rating.
There were a number of ways Constantine could have gone wrong (“We have to stop the “evil” before midnight, but in which time zone?!”) but it thankfully turned out ‘high concept’ instead of just big budget. Best yet, there is mass destruction of the planet viewed by thousands of witnesses, so all of this may have happened (and could still be going on) as you’ve been reading this, and that’s the Heavenly stuff that future sequels are made of.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)