2005, Warner Bros. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LeBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Gavin Rossdale, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Much infernal imagery including possession, a fantasy-magical exorcism, fantasy demon-fighting, and excursions to hell; some subversion of sacred imagery; muddled pop Catholicism mixed with fantasy conceits; strong action violence and gore; a diabolically-influenced suicide; depiction of a heavy-drinking priest; some obscene and crude language.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Move over, Hellboy. There’s a new comic-book demon-fighter in town.
Based on the (so to speak) cult DC/Vertigo comic book Hellblazer, a spin-off from Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, Constantine stars Keanu Reeves in his first post-Matrix vehicle, a relentless action movie with more ideas than both Matrix sequels put together.
The comic-book Constantine is a blond Brit based in Liverpool (think Sting by way of Christopher Lee in Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out). For the film, the casting of Keanu led to a change of setting to California and LA. Similarly, the casting of Shia LaBeouf (Holes) as Constantine’s ally Chandler turned the character from a seasoned comrade in arms into a Jimmy Olsen-like junior sidekick. (Whatever happened to casting actors who fit the part?)
There’s also Rachel Weisz (The Mummy) as an LA cop whose troubled twin sister took her own life, Djimon Hounsou (The Four Feathers) as a former witch doctor named Midnite who’s declared himself "neutral" in the war of heaven and hell and runs a nightclub for "half-breed" angels and demons (I’ll explain later), and Pruitt Taylor Vince (The Cell) as a decent but broken down, hard-drinking exorcist priest who knows enough to call in Constantine when he runs into a possession case that’s out of his league.
As this suggests, Constantine far more religiously oriented than the essentially secular vision of Hellboy, which, a few sacramental trappings aside, presented demons more as interdimensional monsters than fallen angels, beings less interested in tempting or damning men than eating them. Though its central character was a demon fighting for good (or at least against evil), Hellboy showed no interest whatsoever in questions of the afterlife or the meaning of damnation or salvation.
John Constantine is a man, not a demon, but like Hellboy he has emerged from hell to fight demons. A chain-smoking, foul-mouthed occult expert blessed or cursed with the ability to see spiritual warfare all around him, Constantine once committed suicide to escape his visions, and spent an eternity in hell in the two minutes before he was revived. This experience has not made him a big fan of God, although it has convinced him that hell is a lot worse than the alternative. Now Constantine seeks to atone for his suicide and earn his way into God’s good graces, a goal that has some urgency for him, as he is dying of lung cancer.
Constantine’s chosen way of self-redemption is battling the forces of darkness, especially by casting out demons. To its credit, the movie suggests that this is not the way to go about seeking redemption. What is the way, according to the film? As I said, Constantine is full of ideas — some good, some bad, some fictional, some confused, some contradictory. Here’s a rundown of the gospel according to Constantine, by the numbers:
- Good and evil are real.
- Good and evil exist in a dualistic "balance"; God and the devil are for all intents and purposes equal rivals. (The notion of the primacy of good and evil as fallenness and twistedness is largely absent here; unlike Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which made it clear that orcs were once elves, it’s not at all clear here that demons are fallen angels.)
- God has a plan for all of us (though Constantine thinks otherwise, calling God "a kid with an ant farm").
- You can’t earn salvation. God expects self-sacrifice and belief. Selfishness is the way to hell.
- Smoking is bad, too.
- By the way, you can’t be absolved unless you repent. (Maybe, kinda, sorta. More on this later.)
- Angels and demons can help nudge us toward good or evil, but the potential for good or evil is in us, and we are responsible for our own acts and our eternal fate.
- In practice, you only ever see demons fighting for evil — never angels fighting for good. (Actually, the same could be said of The Passion of the Christ… though at least there on the side of good you do have Jesus and Mary, as opposed to a profane freelance exorcist.)
- Demons are very, very bad. But angels aren’t necessarily very, very good. They might be freaking wackos.
- Smoking is also very, very bad.
- God and the devil have a wager for human souls, and neither is supposed to directly intervene in mortal affairs.
- So if a demon tries to cross over out of hell into physical space, or if, hypothetically, the devil as well as God had a son and the devil’s son were going to be born of a woman with no human father, well, that would be a violation of the rules, and might just precipitate the Apocalypse.
- Jesus was the Son of God on earth, and died on a cross and was stabbed with a Roman spear. (Don’t ask me how this jives with the previous idea. After all the writers who worked on this script, you expect it to make sense?)
- Hell is a very, very, very bad place.
- Smoking, too, is very, very, very bad.
- Sacramentals are good. At least, they repel demons.
- This includes cross-engraved brass knuckles and crucifix-shaped firearms. Yeah!
- Suicide is a mortal sin.
- Have I mentioned how bad smoking is?
The notion of a wager between God and the devil, of course, evokes the prologue of the book of Job, where God and the devil wager on whether Job will remain faithful to God if various catastrophes are allowed to befall him. The idea of a détente between heaven and hell with earth as a sort of demilitarized zone, though, is pretty much unsalvageable. And sometimes the movie’s logic breaks down completely, particularly in connection with the character of the angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), who makes no sense at all.
Swinton plays Gabriel in an androgynous mode, presumably because angels are neither male nor female. But the demons played by human actors, including Balthazar (rocker Gavin Rossdale of Bush) and Satan himself (Peter Stormare), aren’t androgynous, but unambiguously male. Why are unfallen angels asexual while fallen ones are masculine? (Oh, I forgot, the movie may not even realize that demons are fallen angels.)
The problem is complicated by the fact that angels and demons both come in at least two varieties. The first, presumably, are the real deal, pure immortal spirits of heaven or hell, who aren’t supposed to manifest physically on the mortal coil. But the film also allows for the existence of "half-breeds," human souls who’ve been elevated to angelic or demonic status, re-clothed in human flesh, and sent back to earth to influence men one way or the other. (In hell we also meet demon-like creatures that are the souls of the damned who have not been sent back to earth, and appear as brain-dead, feral wretches who scramble about in packs on all fours like a brood of mindless Gollums, always sniffing out fresh soul-meat.)
Stormare’s Satan, obviously, is a true demon, while Rossdale’s Balthazar is a half-breed. Both are male — but which is Swinton’s androgynous Gabriel, a true angel or a half-breed? The movie presents contradictory evidence on this point, and in fact when a handful of religion journalists at a press event I attended put the question to the two credited writers, Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, they gave contradictory answers!
This isn’t just a matter of artistic inconsistency. The contrast between the masculine demons and the androgynous Gabriel subtly reinforces the film’s overall depiction of the forces of darkness as more forceful and virile than the forces of light.
Other than Gabriel, the only other angel we see in the film is a clear half-breed, a (male) shopkeeper whom we glimpse comforting a dying man deceived by demons into inadvertently killing himself in the shopkeeper’s store in a way that takes a number of minutes (and in reality would take much longer). The image of the shopkeeper bent over the dying man, his invisible wings arched over him, is one of the film’s precious few flashes of grace — but all I could think was, here demons are slowly killing a man right in front of you, in your own store, and all you can do is impotently comfort him as he dies? What good are you?
In principle, there’s some logic in the notion of hell being willing to cheat while heaven abides by the rules — though whether God is unable or unwilling either to enforce hell’s compliance or to give equal resistance when and where hell does so is uncertain. At any rate, Constantine starts to see signs that the powers of darkness are preparing to cross over into our world, and soon all hell breaks loose and Constantine is fighting demons in the street.
The diabolical plot, which involves the Spear of Destiny (the appellation in legend of the spear thrust into the side of Christ by the centurion traditionally called Longinus) and the Devil’s son, is muddled to say the least (memo to the filmmakers: Jesus was already dead when the spear stabbed him; the spear didn’t kill him), although at least it’s more interesting than anything in Hellboy or Van Helsing. And when Satan himself shows up, his own motives are far from clear, though Peter Stormare (as was remarked by critic Jeff Overstreet of ChristianityToday.com after the screening) is apparently the only actor in the film who recognized how essentially silly the whole thing is.
Freed from the burden of mystical enlightenment that has been a bane to actors from Charleton Heston’s Moses to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, Keanu bounces back from his one-dimensional performance in the Matrix sequels to his two-dimensional performance in the original. At least he has attitude to spare; that, and his star power, is what he was cast for.
"What does God expect from me?" he asks broodingly in one scene. "The usual," says Gabriel, who tells Constantine that it’s his own choices to live the way he does that are responsible for his state of sin. "Self-sacrifice. Faith." That’s a pretty good answer for a comic-book movie, but Constantine himself offers an even better answer to a demon half-breed he’s just bluffed with an idle threat of absolving the demon’s sins before dispatching him, thereby sending the demon to heaven rather than hell. "By the way," Constantine taunts just before blowing him away, "you have to repent in order to be absolved."
Good answer. So, why doesn’t Constantine just repent? Presumably, he’s too angry at God, too rebellious, too proud. He wants to do it himself, and in the end he can’t. Ultimately, the film tries to contrive a sort of redemption for Constantine, as he acknowledges his need for divine help and makes some sort of sacrificial act to save either the girl, the universe, or both, I’m not quite sure. Unfortunately, his sacrificial act takes a form that directly recalls the cause of his damnation rather than anything opposed to it, and while he asks God for help, the one he’s really counting on is the Devil.
The film suggests that God was sufficiently impressed with Constantine’s humility and selflessness, which, again, is at least an improvement from Hellboy in that it suggests that God is actually paying attention.
When it comes to the hero’s redemption, though, the penitential act that the filmmakers seem most impressed with, and that carries the most conviction in the film, is not the climactic sacrifice, but the parting shot of Constantine popping Nicorette gum rather than a ciggy. If that’s not evidence that Constantine is finally sorry for the way he’s lived, I don’t know what would be.