An interesting if not entirely successful supernatural thriller, "Constantine" is a somewhat unusual beast that stands above most efforts in the field thanks to its complete devotion to all that's weird and wonderful about Catholicism.
A series like "Buffy" could've been just about some girl killing demons and vampires, but its become such a beloved show because while it was about that, it combined it with well-written humour and teen angst to deliver a combination never really seen before. "Constantine" isn't anywhere up to that level in terms of the quality of its writing, but it does take what could've been essentially a Keanu kicking demon butt adventure and given it angles that make it something more.
It might be Francis Lawrence's intriguing visual style with his superb fiery depictions of Hell LA and reliance on fascinating images that enhance the plot rather than cover for its holes. There's no MTV style editing, no annoying hard rock music track, and even some rather downbeat apartment sets are all dressed in a way that makes everything feel very cinematic. When the FX guys go overboard with CG monsters, Lawrence keeps a tight reign on them and allows them to add to the film's noirish atmosphere rather than undermine it (Stephen Sommers take note).
A lot of it probably has to do with the rather odd and inventive assortment of characters including a superb Tilda Swinton as an androgynous angel, Bush's Gavin Rossdale having fun as a slick and slimy demonic yuppie, Djimon Hounsou as a 70's pimp-looking on-the-fence bar owner, and Peter Stormare's unforgettably eccentric Satan. Anchoring it all is Reeves doing what he does best - minimal dialogue with a role of essentially the world's ultimate cynicist, a guy who cares about fuck all and isn't afraid to share it with the occasional bit of post-modern humour.
It's a fascinating world in which these strange people populate - a realistic Los Angeles for the most part but with odd touches from nightclubs filled with half-breed monsters from both sides, possessions that make "The Exorcist" seem like "Sesame Street", and some of the most interesting depictions of the Occult on screen in years. Thus it's a shame that our visiting of this world is through a rather lacklustre story involving Angela (Rachel Weisz doing her usual thinking hottie) investigating her twin's death, or a somewhat mishandled subplot about the Spear of Longinus (called 'the Spear of Destiny' here).
It's convoluted and quickly confusing, dumping you right into the action with little to no preparation. With its freaky exorcism scene early on and quick cuts between twins, those not used to genre fare will quickly become befuddled by these misdirections and early plot cues. Steeped heavily in catholic references both overt and subtle, those with Sunday school training will probably get a lot more out of the references than us non-believers.
This is a fairly unrelenting movie as such, making no apologies for its sheer embrace of the concepts of demons, angels and everything in between in literal terms. It also doesn't vent much of it in humour either, it's few laughs purely character based which makes its convictions that much stronger but mainstream audiences could find it all a little silly, genre fans may find it somewhat dumb, nevertheless all can pretty much admire an attempt to do something a little different and interesting.
For a first time feature director its a hell of a debut film and promises great things, especially if he were handed a stronger script. It's central narrative may be on the pedestrian side, but it's the little things of the world of John Constantine that make it an enjoyable revelation. Not a classic, but it is a film that stands strongly on its own and is hard to forget..