“I just pulled a soldier-demon from a little girl.”
Okay, first things first. I know that John Constantine, the chain-smoking, cancer-riddled, demon-battling anti-hero from Alan Moore's immensely popular Hellblazer comic-book series for DC/Vertigo is supposed to be a blonde-haired scouser, whose diabolical escapades are UK-based ... but, hey, this is the movies and with Hollywood holding the purse-strings can we be surprised that they didn't remain faithful to the source material? Of course not. So, plucking Neo's resolutely raven-headed Keanu Reeves from the green-tinged world of The Matrix and planting him into the perpetually shaded netherworld of a haunted City Of Angels is visually as far from the original as you can get - but, strange as it may seem, thematically it makes little difference. Although I've not read Hellblazer, my friends that have, assure me that director Francis Lawrence has, at least, created a tone that is more or less in keeping with the graphic novels. Anyway, I'll have to let the comic fans wrestle with the rights and wrongs of this incarnation because, for me anyway, the movie is an immensely enjoyable, if incredibly daft, occult romp that wears its pulp heritage as proudly as a badge.
“A new case? The big score? The mother lode? The one you've been waiting for?”
Reluctantly patrolling the earthbound border between Heaven and Hell, John Constantine fights the good fight with one clear purpose in mind - to get into God's good books and gain his ticket to the happy hereafter. You see, after being pulled back from two minutes of clinical death as a result of his own suicide, theological law demands that his soul be surrendered to the Devil and now, granted a temporary stay of eternal damnation, he wanders the realm of half-demons and angels, saving souls and banishing errant hellspawn with an entertainingly hokey arsenal of religious weaponry, an acerbic personality and a never-ending supply of cigarettes. Considering that he has been diagnosed with terminal lung-cancer, it seems that his career may be short-lived and his date Downstairs could be looming. He needs to do the Creator a really big favour if he wants to keep out of Hell's kitchen. Enter Rachel Weisz's psychically gifted cop Angela, her twin sister, Isobel, now residing in the Pit, the recently un-earthed Spear Of Destiny that is crucial to a demonic plot to bring forth Lucifer's son, a gaggle of half-headed imps and a backstabbing game of deception from fallen angels Balthazar and Gabriel - and the scene is set for all sorts of magical mumbo-jumbo, CGI nonsense and a wryly laconic turn from Reeves. Look closely and you'll even see some of that Matrix-y green-ness around his pasty gills in what is clearly an anti-smoking message.
The plot may have false assumptions about its own importance and eventually lose its way in an overblown welter of camp silliness, but the atmosphere generated in this twilight world of two-faced good and evil is still something to savour. Philippe Rousselot's sinuous photography provides an unhealthy warmth, all sepia and haze. Even the nights feel a touch too cloying and close, suggestive of the Stygian central heating from down below. The film has a glorious noir-ish veil that is vaguely Fincher but more comfortably in keeping with the dark detective yarns from yesteryear. Although not at all scary - our hero has been to Hell and traded blows with demons ever since, so, inevitably, the fear factor is lessened by his innate familiarity with all that happens - the sense of playful dread, the depiction of this half-hidden battlefield and the wonderful roster of bizarre characters flitting about on its threshold keep the attention throughout. A knowing screenplay that manages to subvert and play merry hell with lots of religious doctrine (“They have bibles in Hell?”) and its clever refusal to explain the mechanics of crossing over from one realm to the other - a cat and a bucket of water, anyone? - give Constantine a quirky, mystical edge that elevates it from the perfunctory likes of The Prophecy series. In this conflict angels are just as likely as demons to possess hidden agendas. The humans on the touchline struggle with ancient texts, amulets and prayers but faith, once again, is just a means to an end, and can be a double-edged sword that will trip the unwary. Constantine's accomplices may invoke cliché - the geeky (and unnecessary) sidekick, the Q-style outfitter of his nifty gadgets and the wise witch-doctor/club owner, Papa Midnite (Gladiator's Djimon Hounsou) - but they also add a few layers to the tale. The fragile stand-off between Light and Dark perfectly showcased in the backroom of the Midnite's neutral ground club.
“I've always known that I could see.”
Rachel Weisz is suitably vulnerable as the good catholic girl whose great introduction sees her in confessional, hoping to atone for her apparent ease at shooting bad guys. She serves as the conduit through which we, the audience, will learn of the heinous schemes that are afoot, screams at all the appropriate moments despite some initial feistiness and, in one goofily intense scene, takes quite a shocking dip in the bath. Not sure about that rather unconvincing accent, though. Then again, I still shudder at the less-than-impeccable English upper-class delivery of Reeves' Jonathon Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula - “Bladdy wolves chasing me through some blue inferno!” And if it's all a little contrived how she ultimately fits into the dastardly grand plan she's still very pleasing on the eye throughout. But it is the androgynous archangel Gabriel played with such luminous reserve by Tilda Swinton who proves to be the otherworldly icing on the cake. Check out her marvellously matter-of-fact explanation of Constantine's doomed predicament when we first meet her and her look of surprise when she finally feels pain. Bush's Gavin Rossdale misses the chance to be really slimy and devious as Balthazar, though, by jettisoning the threat we need to feel from him and just hamming it up, but then again, if he's playing second fiddle to the Man Downstairs then perhaps his performance is entirely apt, given that when Peter Stormare's Lucifer eventually pops up, he is as camp as Christmas. Sadly, folks, this element almost derails the movie completely with a howlingly naff portrayal of a whimsical Beast bedecked in a white suit, brimstone for sweat and all the terror of a sausage on a stick. Only one person has ever successfully captured the Fallen Angel on screen and that was Robert DeNiro in Alan Parker's Angel Heart. Discuss, please. Only a terrific finger-flipping from Reeves saves the moment from unintentional hilarity - you'll know it when you see it.
“Take it from me ... two minutes in Hell is a lifetime.”
Throw in Constantine's crucifix-etched knuckle-dusters, a cross-shaped shotgun and a great sequence of holy water annihilation and you've got a devout avenger with attitude. However, it smacks of formula character-arcing to witness Constantine's conscience coming to the fore as the film progresses. He's only meant to be in it for himself, after all. And the scenes where we are literally taken to Hell and back look a little too old hat - T2's apocalyptic wasteland by way of the One Ring's distorted view of Mordor. But, overall, Constantine is an enjoyable blast, boasting some initially clever ideas, some great set-pieces - the exorcism at the start and the herd of buffalos dropping dead as Hell's disciple passes by - and a good, dryly humorous take on the character from Reeves. It's got as much chance of kick-starting a franchise as Van Helsing (which, ironically, I also enjoyed) and it may profane the source material in the eyes of Hellblazer's legion of followers but, just on its own merits, it is a reasonably fresh, and admittedly silly, entry in the demonic smackdown stakes. Give it a go.