It’s really remarkable that Keanu Reeves has had as long and successful career as he has. He’s not an actor with an incredible range. He may have given one of the worst performances of the past quarter-century in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Other than Dracula, Reeves has picked roles that fit his strengths, and for the most part this has suited him quite well. Another example of Keanu picking the right roles continued with Constantine, an adaptation of the Vertigo comic Hellblazer. Sure, the movie is a rambling mess, but Reeves isn’t why it’s bad. As a matter of fact, he’s one of the few things that prevents Constantine from being an absolute disaster.
Aiming to be a supernatural noir film, Constantine is really nothing more than a special effect spectacle with an incredibly weak script. As a first time director, Francis Lawrence has a few moments that are genuinely interesting, if only from a visual perspective. Evidenced by his follow up, I Am Legend, Lawrence isn’t always adept at getting the most from middling material. The script, credited to Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello, is a mess of half-baked theology and plotting. Characters disappear for lengthy periods of time with little rhyme or reason. The film also features such a rambling nonsensical twist ending that it’s an insult to all twist endings before it.
The most noticeable issue concerning Constantine is its weird use of the MacGuffin. The Spear of Destiny, unrelated to the Sword of Destiny from Arrested Development, was the spear that killed Jesus, and it grants massive power to whoever possesses it. The film’s first scene shows a lowly Mexican peasant discovering the spear wrapped in a Nazi flag, always a good omen. Aside from a rare cutaway to the peasant’s travels to America, the item is all but irrelevant until the film’s climax. By definition a MacGuffin is an item that is sought after, though meaningless, that drives the plot forward. Only here it doesn’t drive anything forward.
Where the film really loses its way is the manner with which it goes to obscure the stakes and the players in its battle between Heaven and Hell. There’s no real central villain throughout the film, only a late in the game reveal that carries little relevance. Think about it, dealing with Heaven and Hell and there’s no effort to present a clear image of good vs. evil. Though they make the film about a wager between God and Satan for the souls of the world – God: an omnipotent, bored gambler – but just saying that a few times doesn’t give the story any form of stakes.
Keanu Reeves does an adequate job portraying John Constantine as a reluctant hero, a supernatural investigator searching for his own salvation. As much as Keanu gets the proper tone of the film, he’s given little support from the writing and directing, which leads to Constantine featuring a wasted cast of biblical proportions. Usually one of the best actresses working today, Rachel Weisz alternates between her typical excellence and the worst she’s ever been, sometime laughable. Shia LaBeouf is Constantine’s trusty cabbie sidekick, Chas, who is basically reprising his role from I, Robot. The worst performance of the film goes to Gavin Rossdale, who’s as good at acting as he is at rocking. The only camera this guy belongs in front of is a paparazzi’s camera – not that I wish Rossdale to be further hounded by the vulture-trash that is paparazzi. For all the film’s failings none is more glaring that the wasting of my spirit animal, Tilda Swinton. Appearing as the angel Gabriel, Swinton has two scenes. In The first of these scenes she explains the rules of the film’s world with natural charm and ease. Then there’s her final scene where they almost unleash the Tilda, but instead allow her to be shoved aside in favor of Peter Stormare.
Constantine was a modest success at the box office, but time hasn’t been kind to the reputation of the film. The movie now mostly forgotten, Constantine lives on as a new series on NBC. Maybe as a weekly series they can find a way to give the character depth that wasn’t achieved at the cinema. Keanu Reeves is still out there doing his Keanu thing – is Dogstar still a thing? Even after his mediocre first feature, director Francis Lawrence has continued to rise as a director, having helmed The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and both installments of the conclusion The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, the first of which comes out later this year. While I could overlook the misused MacGuffin, the lack of clear conflict, the hackneyed noir clichés, and dopey theology, I cannot forgive a wasted Tilda Swinton. While definitely not the worst I’ve had to watch for this series, Constantine is dismal because of its wasted potential. Even with its minor triumphs, Constantine will never find absolution for its sins of undisciplined, bad storytelling.