Constantine is based on the long-running DC/Vertigo comic book Hellblazer, about a streetwise magician named John Constantine who serves as something of an occult detective. But in the place of the blonde Londoner of the comics, the movie gives us the very American, very dark-haired Keanu Reeves, who calls Los Angeles his home and is more psychic than sorcerer.
In the film, Constantine lives in a world of twisted Catholic dogma, where God and the Devil don’t intervene in the affairs of humans, and the battle between good and evil is waged by “half-breeds”, those that are part-angel or part-demon. Constantine is one of the few with the ability to see and communicate with these interlopers, and he works tirelessly to send the demonic ones back to Hell.
We first meet John performing an exorcism on a young girl with the help of his young partner Chas (Shia LeBeouf). Constantine sees the demon literally trying to push its way out of the girl’s body, which is something he’s never witnessed before. But he’s eventually able to trap the demon inside a mirror, which he then smashes to pieces.
After this, Constantine learns from his doctor that he has terminal lung cancer due to a lifetime of smoking. But in his case, this is especially dire news, because he knows that when he dies, he’s going to Hell.
When he was a young boy, visions of demons and angels drove John to take his own life, condemning his soul to eternal damnation. He was eventually revived, but only after experiencing two minutes in Hell, which was plenty of time for John to know he never wants to go back there. That’s why he’s embarked on his current mission of forcefully deporting demons to Hell, in the hopes that his sins will be forgiven and he’ll be allowed into Heaven.
Seeking help with his absolution, Constantine visits the androgynous angel Gabriel (played by the androgynous Tilda Swinton), who simply tells him (a bit too gleefully) that he “fucked up”, and that’s why he’s going to Hell.
Meanwhile, a police officer named Angela (Rachel Weisz) comes to Constantine asking for help to investigate her twin sister’s death. It was ruled a suicide, because her sister jumped off the roof of the mental hospital she was committed to, and even though there’s security footage of her suicide leap, Angela refuses to believe it.
Constantine says that the only way he can know for sure is to pay a quick visit to Hell, which he does with a bizarre ritual involving putting his feet in a pot of water and holding Angela’s cat.
He soon finds himself in Hell, which basically looks like Los Angeles in the aftermath of a Roland Emmerich film. He finds Angela’s twin sister here, and Constantine is able to evade brainless demons and bring her hospital ID bracelet back with him to the world of the living.
With the suicide confirmed, Angela finally reveals that she and her sister both had psychic abilities, and they’re basically the same as Constantine’s abilities. But whereas her sister acknowledged her powers and eventually had a mental breakdown because of them, Angela buried hers, and pretended they didn’t exist. But now, Constantine helps her bring out her powers again by nearly drowning her in a bathtub.
With her abilities reinstated, Angela figures out who drove her sister to kill herself: a half-demon named Balthazar (played by Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale). They hunt him down, and Constantine quickly defeats him with his stash of religious-themed weaponry, including holy brass knuckles, a dragon’s-breath/crucifix flamethrower, and holy water that burns off half his face. The weakened Balthazar reveals that Mammon, the son of Lucifer, is plotting to use the Spear of Destiny, an ancient artifact stained with the blood of Jesus Christ, to come to Earth and rule over us all.
Constantine blasts him into oblivion, and he and Angela take their leave. But before they can get very far, an unseen force grabs Angela and pulls her through walls and windows and across the night sky and eventually deposits her in the same hospital where her sister died. She gets possessed by Mammon, and Constantine and Chas have to battle their way through demons to get to her.
Just as they think they’ve driven the demon out of Angela, Chas is grabbed and beaten to death by that same unseen force. Constantine uses special tattoos on his arm to make the unseen entity appear, and it turns out to be Gabriel, who’s apparently switched sides and is here to use the Spear of Destiny to unleash the son of Lucifer.
To stop Gabriel, Constantine slits his own wrists, knowing that due to his reputation, Lucifer himself will want to personally claim his soul. Right on cue, Lucifer (Peter Stormare) appears to take Constantine to Hell, but when he finds out what Gabriel is up to, he puts a stop to things. Lucifer sends his son back into the fiery pits of Hell, and robs Gabriel of his wings.
Unfortunately, Constantine is still dying and going to Hell, but for his help, Lucifer offers to grant him one last wish. Constantine asks for Angela’s sister to go to Heaven, and this act of self-sacrifice suddenly allows him to get into Heaven himself. Alas, the furious Lucifer pulls him back to Earth, not only healing his slashed wrists but also curing his terminal cancer.
This allows Constantine to start over with a clean slate, and he gives the Spear of Destiny to Angela to hide where no one can find it. The final shot is of him forgoing his usual cigarette to pop a stick of gum in his mouth instead.
And finally, this movie has a post-credits scene (before post-credits scenes were cool) where Constantine visits Chas’ grave, and unexpectedly sees the angel version of Shia LaBeouf (presumably, the one who doesn’t get into bar fights) ascending to Heaven.
Overall, it seems as if the writers were just taking on too much here. The above synopsis doesn’t even get into all the tertiary characters, like Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), some sort of voodoo mob boss who uses an old electric chair and a broken light bulb to help Constantine figure out Mammon’s plot, or Beeman (Max Baker), who outfits Constantine with all his holy weaponry, or Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), your typical drunken priest, or Manuel (Jesse Ramirez), who digs up the Spear of Destiny across the border in Mexico, where it was inexplicably hidden by the Nazis. By the time we finally get this story figured out, we’re at the ending of the movie, which crams in even more information for us to process.
For Constantine’s initial outing, they really should have simplified things a lot, considering he’s not exactly a well-known commodity like some of his fellow DC superheroes. It’s difficult enough for newbies to grasp exactly who Constantine is and what he does without throwing in all these other side characters and unnecessary plot twists.
Despite an overabundance of exposition, the film fails to explain a lot of things: Constantine’s special, angel-revealing tattoos seem to come completely out of nowhere. And how exactly did Nazis end up burying a religious artifact in Mexico, anyway? And I must admit, I still don’t fully understand why the bad guys needed to make Angela’s sister commit suicide in the first place.
The story attempts to add a touch of humor, but most of the jokes aren’t worth more than a chuckle under your breath. About the funniest bit is Constantine ascending to Heaven and flipping off Lucifer at the same time.
This is the feature debut of current Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, who prior to Constantine was known for making music videos for the likes of Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez. And as you’d expect, the movie’s visuals are slick and the special effects are top notch. The only problem is that a lot of those effects are often unpleasant to look at. There are many instances where we have to endure swarming insects, faces melting off, sliced-open heads, and Keanu coughing up blood.
The acting in the film is mostly good, but it’s often hard to take Keanu Reeves seriously with his stiff demeanor, surfer dialect, and the overall impression he gives off of Constantine being rather dimwitted. I do have to say that this is probably one of his more admirable performances, but he still hasn’t stepped too far outside of his comfort zone. The dialogue in the film might have had a bit to do with this. It was overly simplistic and in many areas felt incredibly dull.
If you still have a little hope for Constantine, NBC is debuting their take on the character this Friday. The TV version of Constantine will star Matt Ryan, who’s actually British and blonde. But to the annoyance of those wanting a more faithful adaptation, this version of Constantine will reside in New York, and be (mostly) a non-smoker (and also, probably not bisexual). Will this interpretation of the character be more successful than the film version? If not, I guess we’ll have to content ourselves with the other five or six comic book TV shows debuting this season.