Is it my imagination, or is Keanu Reeves actually getting even more wooden? Is it possible that after 20 years and over 40 films, his grasp of acting technique is so slim that he’s even more affectless now than he was in Speed or The Matrix Trilogy, or is it just that, having entered middle age, his callowness is more and more distracting? Whatever the reason, there’s not a moment in Constantine when he’s believable. Though he’s clearly been cast because the gajillions of dollars he helped rake in as Neo have made him one of our most bankable stars, it’s hard to imagine an actor less equipped to play a man burdened by an intimacy with the conflict between good and evil. As he’s written (in the script by Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello, based on the comic-book series Hellblazer), John Constantine is a tormented soul, a man trapped between Heaven and Hell, with greater knowledge of both than is good for anyone’s sanity. As played by Reeves, Constantine seems only a bit peevish, as though awakened in the middle of a particularly restful nap. His line readings retain the flat, surfer-boy insouciance we hoped he’d outgrow 10 or 15 years ago, and when he — spaces — his — words — out — for — effect, he just seems constipated.
He’s not helped by the director, Francis Lawrence, a music-video veteran making his first feature. Lawrence, as one might expect, has a sure hand with the visuals — the film has a spooky, sexy, funny atmosphere, and the countless set pieces are as violent and unsettling as anyone could want — but he doesn’t show much ability with actors. While Reeves’ performances have always been flattish, other directors — such as Gus Van Sant in My Own Private Idaho and Sam Raimi in The Gift — have been able to get something out of him that resembled human emotion. But even Rachel Weisz, a delight in 2003’s Runaway Jury, isn’t at her best here. Cast as twins with psychic abilities, one of whom turns up dead, prompting the other, an unusually beautiful police detective, to investigate, Weisz seems somewhat wan. The fire-in-the-belly she showed two years ago, which would have been an ideal asset for her tough-gal cop, is strangely missing.
But, really, the problems with Constantine go deeper than just Lawrence’s inability to bring out the best in his cast, back to Brodbin and Cappello’s script. They did some things very well, such as the subtle genre mockery that underlies a number of scenes, but so much of the dialogue is leaden claptrap like this:
Weisz: “I don’t believe in the devil.”
Reeves: “You should. He believes in you.”
It may not have helped that the film was co-produced by Akiva Goldsman, screenwriter of such dross as Batman & Robin and Practical Magic. (Yes, he also wrote the screenplay for A Beautiful Mind, for which he won an Oscar, but I didn’t much like that movie, either.)
Constantine is at its best in the early scenes, which establish the basic who/where/why with efficiency and zeal. Lawrence and the cinematographer, the gifted Philippe Rousselot, give Reeves a stylish antihero’s entrance: Outside the home of a girl possessed by a demon, a taxi zips to the curb and stops abruptly. The camera drops to pavement level. A hand appears in the rear passenger window and drops a cigarette right into the lens, but just before it hits, we pull back to a medium-long shot of the taxi, and see the man who dropped it. And … it’s Keanu Reeves … looking tetchy. A bit of an anticlimax. Within the next couple of minutes we’re introduced to his friend Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who is possibly the most dissolute-looking cleric since Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, and his young driver/apprentice, Chas Chandler (Shia LaBeouf), a typically earnest young aide, redeemed from tedium by LaBeouf’s likable and genuine earnestness. The action moves inside, where Reeves performs the most physically aggressive exorcism I’ve ever seen, brutal and scary, with incredibly tense editing by Wayne Wahrman.
The film never quite recaptures the energy of its early scenes, though the pace remains reasonably stirring for a good while, with another overscaled action sequence every few minutes. It helps that the filmmakers have surrounded Reeves with a remarkable supporting cast, including Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel (in a clever nod to her androgynous past as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando) and Djimon Hounsou as Midnite, a former witch doctor and sometime friend of Constantine’s who has sworn to remain neutral in the conflict between God and Satan.
Ah, yes, God and Satan. Constantine’s supposed to have something to do with them, right? Well, it does include Peter Stormare as the Devil, in a white suit, with his feet covered in what appears to be crude oil, sporting neck tattoos and shorn of eyebrows. Imagine Tom Wolfe as an off-duty drag queen, or maybe Uncle Fester dressed for a Saturday-night date. Stormare’s never been opposed to a little scenery chewing, and he seems to be enjoying himself, but I had a hard time connecting his character with any familiar notion of Lucifer. For a film that manages to work in such an array of (real and made-up) Christian arcana, it has curiously little religious feeling. Mostly, the demons are there just like any other malign CGI horde in a contemporary action film — to menace our hero and be cannon fodder.
The film’s view of Hell owes less to the Bible or to Dante than it does to James Cameron’s postapocalyptic imagery in the Terminator films, but at least Lawrence avoided borrowing too many visuals from a more obvious temptation, The Matrix. (There’s a fairly subtle one, a man in a crowd wearing a black suit and dark glasses that immediately recall Agent Smith.) Still, the film falls into the same trap that the Wachowski brothers did at the climax of their trilogy, turning Reeves again into a sacrificial Christ figure, arms outstretched as he attempts to ascend to Heaven. It says something disheartening about the age in which we live when a man like Reeves is cast once again as our presumptive messiah.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Constantine / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()