RIORI Vol 3, Installment 78: Francis Lawrence’s “Constantine” (2005)

The Players

Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LeBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare, with Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Gavin Rossdale (yeah, that guy from Bush).

The Story…

In a world ruled largely by what is and what’s not, an eccentric, troubled private detective with a taste for the supernatural finds himself on his latest paranormal-tinged case: an investigation of a murdered suicide victim.

Say what now?

The Rant…

I’m a lapsed Christian. Been so for quite some time, at least since dinner.

It’s not like if I fell out of love with the church (but she’s never returned my calls, so there), just away. I was raised Episcopalian, which is the American version of Anglicism, the church of England. Very similar practices, but with less heavy accents. Either way this branch of Protestantism is pretty straightforward: study and try to follow the teachings of Jesus, apply them towards peace and understanding to friends and enemies alike and attend mass every Sunday to compare hats. It’s a social affair as much it is a spiritual one. Enlightenment and handshakes all around. Amen.

As nice a sentiment as that is, over time I tired of church, but not tired of the above things. Definitely not the hats; coonskin goes a long way. Don’t misunderstand me here; nowadays I’m pretty much an atheist. It’s not the whole, “If there is a God then how come there is so much suffering yadda yadda yadda you’ve heard it…” Shut it. Bad sh*t happens because people, not some omnipotent deity make it rain on other people. This a simple construct as well as popular one for the ago non- or no-longer believer. It sure is trite. Call that mindset your typical “gateway drug” into questioning faith. It’s the Busch Light version of Martin Luther and his hammer. Still, that precept in all its iterations is a good question as to why some folks leave faith behind. Or pull a 180. Why is the world so topsy-turvy when most of us seek spiritual enlightenment? The whole peace, love and understanding matters of unity. What’s so funny about that?


Even me being a lapsed Christian, to this day (and call it judgmental; JC would waggle a finger at me for this one) I’m a pretty good armchair/inflatable pulpit kinda rainmaker when it may why push comes to shove between faith up against the often ugly reality about living on Earth. The other plane can wait for now.

Although I’m not a believer in God, I am quite the fan of his son. Whenever I’ve read the Bible, the Four Gospels always appealed to me. Jesus’ best buds Matthew, Mark, Luke and John waxing poetic about their times hanging with the big man. Taken as a whole, the Gospels play out like a G-rated Tarantino flick. In so saying, John says, “I remember the time Jesus and me did…” Then Matt says, “Waitaminnit, that’s not how I remember it.” Then Luke raises his hand, “Uh, guys…?” And Thomas grouses, “You guys are full of sh*t.”

JC’s times with his apostle wingmen are a big road trip, with essential Christian lessons learned along the way. And with every good road trip you gotta have the guy that takes the wheel. In this light—as one of several—the New Testament is like a Hallmark card given at the right time. The Old Testament may be a series of cautionary traffic cones, but the next chapter is the open road, full of possibilities. I like that with Jesus as the wheelman. A guiding force for good without the messianic complex, so to speak. This I can get behind, with or without proper worship.

Then there’s that 180. The collective who takes the Bible’s stories beyond way too serious. I think it was Voltaire that said, “One does not read the Bible for its text.” Namely, read between the lines you dweebs. You know the crap I cited above about hats? Yeah. I figured out that there are two types of Christians. On one hand we have the believers that congregate to engage in both worship and social congress, trying to understand one another’s differences and find some common ground. On the other we have folks who’ve gone through the Book of Revelation with a highlighter. Yeah, I think I’d rather hang around the coffee urns post-sermon. We got enough issues already to waste time planning for Armageddon, and again you don’t need church to try and reconcile with all that sh*t. War, disease, fake news, GMOs, being actually concerned about Miley Cyrus’ career path. We all got our spiritual bags full of cracked eggs.

All that’s out there, and was another nail in the cross—again, so to speak—of me quitting the church. The whole “if there is a loving God” schpiel eventually found me as a cop-out. All that bad sh*t above happens in this world is caused by people, not crafted from some prankster on High. I figured if that one attends church to learn the straight and narrow, that’s a waste of time. You learn that path by wandering through the world, taking in the sights, sizing up what you see and hear. If you found the right path then you’d find your way to a house of worship. If you need to understand how to get along with people and two hours every Sunday fits the bill, you are a far more enlightened person than me or anyone that reads this blog.

Yeah, so the whole “making excuses” factor soured me. That and Thomas’ potty mouth. I didn’t believe I had to attend church to understand the basal concept of good versus evil, or how to try and get along with different people, or not burn anyone at a stake. Attending church boiled down to the whole hat thing again. I read the Bible on my own, most of which I dug. Understood JC was a cool guy, a philosopher and an agitator to the rather unbalanced status quo of the Roman Empire. No one needs to attend church to get all that. At the end of the day, I figured out church as that hat thing. Old hat.

One final significance that turned me off to church: the routine. Scolding sin and looking for the highest tree to lasso. When I was a wee one sitting in the pew (quit giggling), trying to soak up so much ballyhoo I could’ve sworn I was getting the stinkeye from the prominent gatekeepers attendant by the altar, not to mention the prelate himself at the lectern delivering tales of hellfire and brimstone to a quivering congregation. Needless to say, I didn’t feel right welcome. Not JC territory for me, even at the age of nine.

So what does all my mucky muck have to do with lapse in faith? Well, it’s not a lapse in faith per se. Despite all the nastiness on the planet and my cynical worldview, I still have faith in humanity. There’s still compassion out there, practiced by decent, caring people, Christian or no. Be it St Jude’s Hospital, Habitat For Humanity, Greenpeace or Black Lives Matter, caring folks with the need to communicate a message of trust and understanding to everyone is out there. Kinda like what our wheelman might do.

No. I lost faith in the church, an entity that was once open but is now insular, in bed with the state and casting out when they should be opening up. Not all churches are like that, but I’ve driven by many monolithic edifices dedicated to worship (most with Wi-Fi) and couldn’t help but wonder where all that money came from to build those fortresses on such prime real estate and where it could’ve been spent otherwise? Tax free?

Slow down there. Before I crawl any further up thine own arse about this whole struggle with belief, I’ll sort of wrap up with the following warm fuzzy. And it has nothing to do with my keeping Super Mario Bros on my NES on indefinite pause for the duration of one Sunday’s eucharist cuz I finally made it to world 8. That kind of sounds like religious fervor. Not a prayer circle or nothing, but what the hell, I was 12.

It’s about retirement, both literal and spiritual. Too much of everything, yet still committing self to spirit. Possibly a metaphor for bailing on the need for turtleneck sweaters between 9 and 11 in the morning on any given Sunday. We’ll even let go of the suspect prime real estate for now.

Recall overly stern minister I rambled about? After he retired I learned on the sly that there was a sort of witch hunt upon his flock. I knew I felt uncomfortable during service, and what was told spoke millions as well as calmed me. I was f*cking 9, yet in the swim of the hat checking that was floating around the congregation.

Turned out the senior members of the congregation didn’t want kids in worship; too much of a potential ruckus. Ban ’em, down to Seventh Level with ya little booger-eaters. Even as a kid I knew that was dopey. How are you gonna replenish the crop without fresh seeds? Not a direct quote there, but really? Segregation at church? Isn’t that a part of both what the Apostles and the Founding Fathers fought against (and if you can’t trust GW and JC then who can you)? So the proverbial seed of doubt was sown, and I was merely nine. Church ain’t the place to be. The physical building at any rate.

Fortunately the edict was short lived. As a kid—ignoring the witch hunt—I kinda found church comfy, albeit boring. We all went through the motions, sure, hearing about sin and redemption and WWJD? No joke here, but hanging close with all the parishioners felt good, like family Thanksgiving. It was probably herd mentality all the way, but I received some succor from the rhetoric. For a time. What I learned about the minister and his elite guard, church wasn’t the nest it was supposed to be. It was a crucible.

*insert dramatic tympani bellows here*

The game changer was the old codger’s replacement. He was a soft-spoken man, Southerner with a lilting accent and a bit of a hangdog. He wasn’t the aggressive peddler in sin and strife like his precursor, all self-righteous with St Peter on speed dial. No. The new guy was gentle, reserved and gave the finest sermons I ever heard. I was still a kid and at that time an acolyte who lit the candles and fidgeting before the altar during service (what with that massive reminding crucifix hanging over my head. Another good reason to dodge church: the possibility of being smitten), but had a keen enough ear toward a good story when I heard it. Brimstone or thankfully no.

Our Southern gentleman preacher’s sermons were the kind of thing I could get around, loaded with questioning and light on the sinning. Sure, he’d always start his schpiel with some Biblical references, but we were in church so it felt superfluous. Guess he was filling some sort of Episcopalian counting coup quota. But the bulk of his sermons were steeped in social commentary. A lot of it political, which flew in the face of proper sermonizing. Separation of blah and blah, right? Stuff like our leaders’ civil intentions towards their constituency, and were they walking along the path of the Savior. Or educators’ rolls teaching faith without “teaching faith.” Or the one sermon that really stuck with me (despite me being whelp cowing under the cross, literally and figuratively) was about divorce as sin. Was it? That covenant between man and woman under the watchful eye of God, broken? Don’t ask why some snot-nosed young snot like me paid attention, but that might’ve been our genteel preacher presented his sermon like some closing argument in trial court. He weighed the evidence, tempered it with just enough emotion to make it go down smooth and delivered his answer:

“Is divorce bad? Yes. Is it a sin? No.”

This frankness was a lot more assuring than me bound for the lake of fire for playing doctor with that cute girl down the lane. Kidding. I didn’t live on a lane. It was a drive.

It’s that kind of story, that kind of meditation on life, love and leaving that was mostly absent in my family’s church. I know now that I don’t need to attend mass to get my fill of Jesus’ many road trips, nor do I need mismatched worship against hidden secular agendum. I don’t need the teachings of the Bible as an excuse for humans’ deplorable behavior. And I don’t need some omnipresent overlord with His magnifying glass to ensure we all keep in line. That’s all bullsh*t. We’re in charge of our own destinies without churches, hopefully going forward with decency and common sense. That’s me.

To conclude, and in respect to this week’s wad of dough, there was that 180 I spoke of. I don’t really need to expound on those “true believers” motives, or motivations for that matter. I can’t exactly pin it down, but I’m sure I heard it somewhere, maybe in high school history class: Our puritanical Puritans who we asked to leave England and set up shop here had a very dire version of practicing their baleful version of Christianity. Their sermons consisted of hellfire and brimstone, to be sure. But to have to listen to passages of how much God hates you, you willful sinner. How you are a mere insect hanging by a thread over the Inferno, and the Man Upstairs cannot wait to cut the cord and only eternal prayer may—may—save your eternal soul, well that kind of mindset JC might argue against.

Good faith and good PR. Might be a better weapon against Satan and his mighty, tempestuous hordes of demons at his beck and call. Y’know, personal faith to thwart evil. Integrity over temptation. Righteousness over sloth. Belief against the inevitable.

Prayer against…

The trouble with knowing you’re wrong is that you’re often right.

John Constantine (Reeves) is damned. Damned if he does and damned if he does. He’s a detective. A very unique detective. He doesn’t specialize in theft, infidelity or even murder. No, not outright. He specializes in weird crimes that no one else can handle. Mostly because they involve the supernatural, the occult and slapping demons in the puss.

You see, John has the ability (maybe curse) to see what the normal world can’t. Or won’t. Demons, angels and everything in between are naked to him, as are the crimes on this plane they commit. He takes on the odd cases involving exorcism, magic, ley lines out of whack and nasty imps from the underworld hell-bent of corrupting mortal beings. It can get messy.

And not just in the ectoplasmic sense. Detective Rachel Dodson (Weisz) seeks out John’s unique talents.  Turns out her sister Isabel (also Weisz) after being committed to an asylum takes a swan dive into the facility’s pool. From ten floors up. Rachel refuses to believe this was a suicide, them both being devout Catholics. Isabel would never take her own life, no matter of disturbed she may have been.

Rachel suspects some otherworldly force drove Isabel to jumping. At first, John is skeptical. Sound like a traditional suicide to him. But over the week since, and weird demonic crimes popping up at an inexplicable rate, there might be something…unnatural attached to Isabel’s death.

Maybe supernatural might be a better term.

So John lights up and also lights up…

We never talked about the occult or the paranormal, beyond the devil’s antics and the seven deadly sins in church. Which is kinda odd. There are plenty of opportunities to teach the mortal plane about storm and strife with the addition of demonic activity to drive the point home.

Sure, there are significant tales from the chapters of the Good Book that highlight spectral incursions. The temptation of Christ courtesy of a jealous Satan. The temping snake in Eden. Even the donkey Uber telling Joe and Mary the way to Bethlehem. Lots of weird sh*t in the Bible as head-scratchers, courtesy of the paranormal.

Not much was delved into when I was a church-goer. Too bad, for if this element was examined further I might be still attendant. Why? Consider the nightly news. A diluted version of sin and strife to be sure, but also as entertainment. JC feeding Satan his hydra-like c*ck of his own ass? What leaves more of an impression? Probably more than the potential financial turnouts on NBR. Go invest elsewhere.

This week, I invested in Francis Lawrence’s Constantine for a fix of demonic incursion and intrigue. That and a little police procedural thrown in. I’ll admit, I was a tad bamboozled. Based on my viewing of Lawrence’s take on I Am Legend, I expected a weird amalgam of sci-fi, Lovrecraftian sensibilities and human drama.

Instead, and within 12 minutes there was a stink of cheeze.

At the outset, Constantine felt deliberately comic-bookyI don’t care if this film was lifted from DC’s mature Vertigo imprint, where those titles aim beyond the PG-13 crowd. Any hack can warp a serious comic into drivel if they don’t understand the nature of the medium. Fortunately, a great many filmmakers did get it (eg: Watchman, From Hell, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, etc), and were fearless in their execution.

Constantine has the stale scent of holding back met with fumbling fingers. Like clumsily unhooking a bra after prom.

Now to be fair, Constantine was cut during the fallow days when comic book movies were just beginning to come into vogue and most directors didn’t know what they’d gotten their hands on. Sure, some guys like Bryan Singer got it with his take on the X-Men and some guys like Bryan Singer didn’t with his take on Superman Returns. We’re talking uneven stories at best back then (if not now, come to think of it). There wasn’t a proper template established yet. From what I’ve observed most early comic book movies couldn’t—or outright wouldn’t—stray far from the “comic book” aspect of the movies’ source. The bombast, the action, the bing boom splat. The subtlety of Adam West.

I’m not claiming that director Lawrence wrote it in, but there was an air of Constantine playing it safe by delivering the straight line. What’s worse the film appears to be trying real hard to rise above the underpinnings that Batman And Robin staked down almost a decade prior. Barring any neon upchuck, Constantine overplays the action and undermines a lot of the human drama that makes comic book movies tick (as well as actual comic books). The first Spider Man flick illustrates this tenet. This lack (or at least, rather weak feeling) of organic drama and character development makes the movie feel strained,  compensating with lots and lots of F/X and speed while muddling the razor thin plot. It’s forced atmosphere of urgency. Simply put, Constantine is the first boring exciting movie about demons I’ve ever seen. Sure, I don’t have much of a reference point, but ride with me already.

And the ride through Constantine was a bumpy one. A lot of stalled pacing, like when a car slips out of gear and you have to turn the engine over again (my ride’s stick; best analogy I could think of). Like I said, forced urgency. Funny considering the balance of power between angels and demons existing on our plane with their tips and tricks. Figured those stakes would ramp up something. I said the film was trying too hard to be suspenseful and mysterious, but on the flipside I also felt director Lawrence was holding back. He was shackled to the preconceived notions of what—at the time—a comic book movie should be. Lawrence is a stylish director, but his work has a fair amount of substance only accented with style. I repeat, his take on the umpteenth iteration of I Am Legend was chockful of style balanced well with human drama substance. Seeing that film was a dire character study with only Will Smith and a loyal German shepherd as the primary cast for most of the movie, the guy knows the balance of the human factor against the, well, inhuman factor. Looks like with Constantine the human part got gobbled up by the inhuman splash and dash. But again, Legend was released after Constantine, so it stands to reason that the man might’ve learned a thing or three after this pastiche.

In retrospect, that’s kind of a shame. Again I profess that comic book trappings of the time undid a lot of this movie. Lawrence is too sharp a director to let things get out of hand, but again that comic book prejudice. Blame may be placed at the feet of test audience (I’ll have something to say about that Neilsen nightmare some other time), who may have wanted Exorcist lite, but with more boomy things. And that might be where Lawrence met some middle ground between “Slow down there” and “Get on with it.” I appreciated the restrained use of the slam-bang CGI action. Constantine’s descents into the underworld were swift and sharp. Plot points and not just some phantasmagoria to tantalize us with wanton pixels. I liked that aspect; it felt like evidence of how the action would play out in I Am Legend. Sparse and essential to captivate and maintain interest in the story. Worked for me.

Some more strained positivity: truth be told, okay. It takes a while; slow burn. Maybe too slow, but the intrigue eventually rises. Even if only halfway through the second act. I didn’t get where the flick was going. It felt aimless, lacked oomph. Where the hell are we going with this (so to speak)? Eventually got an inkling that Constantine was trying to be an action movie, not really. Forgetting comic book bias for a minute, the movie was in actuality a murder mystery, gussied up with Peter Stormare as REDACTED and minus a spine. It took a while to come to this conclusion, but I got. Then I tried to keep on to that. That was the tricky part.

Reeves seems a bit too slick to pull off gumshoe, paranormal or no. He’s been in the shadow of Neo’s leather coat a bit too long. Constantine is supposed to be gritty; guy’s like a paranormal MacGuyver. But he’s too smooth, regardless of how used to he is with dealing with the occult, demons, angels and maintaining a balance between plains. Reeve’s Constantine is irritated, not wizened by a lifetime of battling endless evil. And all he has to show for it is a hopeless addiction to cigarettes and their REDACTED. Guy should’ve been more pissy. Just saying.

Weisz doesn’t fare much better. She comes across as too willowy to be taken seriously as a grizzled cop, and eventually descends into reactive, damsel-in-distress territory. Sure, she’s easy on the eyes but her on screen time just grates. Despite her matter is the movie’s maguffin she sure seems overly passive in solving her sister’s “murder.” She’s a tag-along, made worse by her gaping over the supernatural stuff that is Constantine’s (stale) bread and butter. Too bad there.

But like I said with the supporting cast, ah, therein lies some rub.

I really dug Swinton as the reluctant angel, the oracle. Here’s a good (if not the only) example of mystery that the movie was ostensibly pushing. Her screen time was brief, but crucial. I’ve always enjoyed Swinton’s air of nervous dignity, codified by her later performance in Michael Clayton (check it out. I’ll wait). Sometimes less is more, especially in an overwrought comic book movie like this one.

Hounsou as Papa Midnite was a trick, the Huggy Bear of the underworld underworld. Sharp, flinty and has seen too much. Barely tolerating every aspect of his being. Sure, he’s the man with the plan, but the plan’s been leased out to “forces” beyond his command. Papa can see the horizon, but not the dawn, and makes no bones about that to our pretty hero with something on his shoulders. That and Hounsou is something our lead is sorely lacking: he’s tough.

What really surprised me was Gavin “Everything Zen” Rossdale as the schemin’ demon Balthazar. His show was quite affecting. I am as shocked as you may be that Mr Stefani could pull off such a scuzzy, intriguing performance. Rossdale’s Balthazar reminded me of a riverboat gambler: all about the stakes before the prize. His motivation was like that quote, “some goals are so worthy, it’s glorious even to fail.” Might sound high-minded about a Brit grunge also-ran’s acting debut, but he played his sh*t to the hilt and the rest of the cast should’ve taken notice. F*ck Razorblade Suitcase BTW. Don’t care what the critics said. Neither did they.

Erm, I’m gonna leave Shia as Spanky, er, Chas the cabbie alone. Can’t win ’em all.

Stormare was a trip. He’s always bleakly funny. From Grey in Fargo to the cosmonaut in Armageddon, his lot is humor, and always necessarily left of center. Sinister humor here. Even though his presence is made known in the third act, it was worth the wait, at least for this blogger who was biting his nails not out of suspense but of desperation (at least I was feeling something). Stormare was perfectly cast for his role, and played it to the hilt as well as teetered on cheesy. But good cheesy, his stock in trade. These supporting characters (even the annoying Max Baker) almost, almost redeemed this whole paranormal rigamarole. Can’t cross the Mississippi in three small steps and all. Splash.

Despite the sick supporting cast trying to hold it all together, Constatntie’s final act eventually devolved into murky/busy. Too many ends to tie up. It was as if Lawrence threw down his bullhorn, threw up his hands and just threw up. There was too much to wrap up in a few scenes, like a Buzzcocks song with too many lyrics and not enough notes. A tempest of sluggish, fast and harried. Yeah, we got our resolution but what the hell happened? Without giving anything away I felt all bamboozled. Not to mention cheated. Constantine felt muted at times, subdued, retrained. Then we flipped the coin and got jagged, unhinged action, not necessarily fun or coherent. Not sure in the grand scheme if this was the redeeming factor in an uneven paranormal crime procedural, or just illustrating the studio wasn’t exactly sure how to open this Pandorum. Truth be told I would’ve preferred more key restraint, namely with our cast. Like it seems with pleasantly schlocky flicks like this the leads grate while the supporting cast is cast in a more flattering light. Too bad even that appeal was so incongruent. Gave me a headache.

I know, I know. I’ve been real cagey with this installment; giving you mostly bones with very little meat. That word “incongruent” best describes Constantine. But it ain’t all a snarky labyrinth; my screed might be read as a passive way to suggest you all seeing Constantine without a lot of personal investment. Take it that way. Don’t misunderstand me (any more than you already have), this movie is subpar as both an action movie as well as a comic book adaptation. It does retain a certain charm, however; consider Constantine as an acid test for how far comic book movies have come over the past decade-plus. Sure, it’s heavy on the bombast and light on the human—and/or inhuman—factor, but there’s that charm thing hanging in the ether. Watching Constantine is akin to a one night stand: sure, it’s fun while it lasts, as long as you abandon all thoughts of commitment the next morning.

Don’t forget to leave cab fare on the pillow, fer Christ’s sake.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Cast this demon out. Sorry, Neo.

Stray Observations…

  • “You goin’ down?” “Not if I can help it.”
  • Always wondered what do non-smoking actors smoke when they smoke in the movie?
  • “I need to eat.”
  • Cow tipping (rimshot)!
  • “Two hundred dollar shirt, by the way.”
  • Okay. The tub scene was disturbing.
  • “Not bad, kid.”
  • “It’s called pain. Get used to it.”

Next Installment…

Once upon a time, there was an Irish vacuum cleaner repair man that met a florist who loved to play piano…

That sounds promising.