Go to Hell
Must… resist… urge… Nrrr… Rrrggg… Must… resist…
KEANU REEVES’ BOGUS JOURNEY
There. I said it. And I feel better. But I also feel bad, because I like Keanu an awful lot and I wouldn’t want him to think I can’t get past the whole Bill-and-Ted thing even though those were two of the seminal movies of my pathetic young geekhood. And also, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m calling Constantine bogus in any way at all because it’s simply spectacular and way cool and instantly one of the great comic-book movies and really just an awesome dark action fantasy, comic-book or no.
But the fact remains that Keanu does indeed travel to hell once again on film, and the allusion is just too delicious not to make, particularly because it makes you think about how much geeky movies have grown up along with me and Keanu and all us Generation Xers. Fifteen years ago Bill and Ted took a seriously silly journey to the underworld, and this one is seriously freakishly disturbing. Imagine if Bosch and Dante were 21st-century geeks and they collaborated on a graphic novel (and maybe that’s a good description of Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis’s book Hellblazer, upon which this is based, but I don’t know cuz I’ve never seen it). Holy crap, but there’s some imagery here that will stalk your nightmares: a herd cows grazing placidly dropping dead one by one in a hellish-red landscape as an evil religious artifact moves past them; a demon made up of snakes, bugs, and other creepy-crawlies; and hell itself, which looks like Los Angeles on a really hot day, a clever idea that should make you want to laugh but instead maybe you only chuckle nervously, like you get the itchy uncomfortable suspicion that if hell were real, this is pretty damn close to what it would look like.
Just: Wow. It’s not too many films that make me go Wow, and when I find one of them like Constantine it reminds me why I sit through all the junk and all the crap: because once in a while a movie comes along like this one. Oh, and it gave me chills, too, more than once, another rarity. This is simply one of those perfect films, where you can’t imagine any aspect of it being done any better than it is.
But it’s not just that the film’s grim, medieval flourishes are so startling and so unexpected. It’s that those dreadful and horrifying visuals are balanced out by a kind of groundedness, an austerity that prevents the whole endeavor from becoming ridiculous or overbaked. It’s not just that screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello trust us to be able to handle getting thrown into the deep end of the pool with no handholding, or that director Francis Lawrence demonstrates a kind of restraint unusual in his fellow music-video veterans, and lets the excitement and the drama emerge from the characters and their story rather than from tricks of the camera or stylish FX.
It is, rather, that Reeves’s (Something’s Gotta Give, The Matrix Revolutions) John Constantine has a stripped-down cynicism that works particularly well in the context of Christian mythology made real: He believes, because how can you not when the evidence of the truth of God and the Devil, heaven and hell and all the rest, is right in front of your face, trying to kill you, but he has no faith. Reeves’s wouldn’t have been the first name to come to mind if someone had asked me to name the next great noir anti-hero, but he’s so perfect here that there’s another reason for me to feel bad about the whole bogus-journey thing. Constantine is the very antithesis of a bogus journey for Reeves: He so exudes noirish weariness of the soul, even amidst the physical demands of battling demons, that it forces you see that the dude has some serious chops that he hasn’t had exactly the right vehicle to demonstrate them in. Till now. C’mon: It takes some major balls — and some real subtlety on an actor’s part — to lack faith when you’re arguing with the archangel Gabriel.
Though maybe Constantine’s lack of faith isn’t all that hard to understand: it’s a caustic assessment of Christianity on offer here, one in which the world and all its souls are mere pawns in a nasty game God and the Devil are playing — Constantine is a kind of a self-appointed referee, an exorcist who exiles from our plane of existence those demigods and minions of Satan who don’t follow the rules, so he’s in the perfect position to have a dim view of all the players. As we are, too: we get one of the most unsettling depictions of Satan here — he’s played by Peter Stormare (Birth, Bad Boys II) as a bored, arrant reprobate — but also an unctuously smooth Gabriel as well, portrayed with a swaggering genius by Tilda Swinton (The Statement, Young Adam). It’s not a flattering portrait.
But that’s part of what’s so cool, too: Endless geeky discussions about religion and mythology and free will and such will be spawned by Constantine, but it’s all there below the surface. The film leaves it up to you and your moviegoing pals to keep having fun with it long after it’s over. It’s not worried with hashing out the implications of the story it’s telling — it’s just telling a hellacious, wicked-good story. Nothing at all bogus about it.