Like the fantastic worlds they depict, genre stories follow their own rules. Constantine is a good example of this. Its premise is absurd on many levels, but by the conventions of its genre, the movie works.
Based on the DC-Vertigo comic book Hellblazer and reminiscent of 1995’s The Prophecy, the film stars Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, a cancer victim with ties to the supernatural. When police detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help to solve the death of her twin sister, the two get caught in a scheme to bring hell on earth.
If you’re not familiar with this type of material, you should know that Constantine belongs to an obscure subgenre I like to call the theological thriller: supernatural fiction based on religious mythology. As obscure subgenres go, it’s one of my favourites.
Every theological thriller features a hero in dire need of redemption. This, the movie takes literally. Its title character, doomed to hell for the life he took, preys on demons in a vain attempt to earn his way into heaven, but as the angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) puts it, “that’s not the way this works.” Like film noir heroes, Constantine’s charm is in his abundant flaws. He’s rude, self-centered, unrepentant (which I guess prohibits his absolution), and all the more endearing for it. He’s not the strongest or the bravest. He simply knows the angles.
Reeves, not exactly known for his thespian skills, does a surprisingly good job of conveying both the character’s weariness and sardonic wit. He finds the right tone with one-liners that are refreshingly more self-deprecating than macho. Also, he looks good. There’s an awkward grace in the way Reeves moves that makes him ideal for effects-heavy films like Constantine, perhaps because he seems as unnatural as the digital creations surrounding him.
Though I was disappointed by its rendition of hell, which looks too much like a nuclear holocaust, the movie is generally effective in its use of visual effects, focusing more on aesthetics than on believability. Characters regularly take unusual poses for no other reason than that they look pretty on screen.
That is not to say Constantine is brainless eye-candy. In fact, the story strikes me as considerably more ambitious than that of the average action-thriller. I especially enjoyed the final confrontation, in which words are traded instead of punches. Also consider the true villain’s master plan. When all is said and done, can we confidently assert its failure? There’s romance in the ambiguity.
And that’s the whole point. When we’re told of dragon’s breath and half-breed angels, we’re meant to find romance in these notions, not payoff. There’s no exposition in theological thrillers, only mythology. If the intrigue seems a bit contrived, it may be because we’re witnessing the machinations of higher beings, or perhaps it’s because the plot is secondary to the dream. Supercilious cinephiles will mock Constantine’s fantastical excesses, but movies of this kind are all about creating a fantasy. Is there anything more cinematic?