dir: Francis Lawrence
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There used to be a time, back in the distant reaches of the 90s when everyone knew that Keanu Reeves sucked as an actor but didn’t care. Girlies thought he was cute, and guys thought he was funny in Point Break and Speed, but no-one thought he was much of an actor. Then he starred in a little film called The Matrix, and some people started to take him seriously.
God knows why, since Kanooie’s success in that film was more a matter of him not being allowed to give the world his version of ‘acting’, standing in the right place with the right clothes on, and being an adequate support for the designer sunglasses that he was a prop for. Only for him does a wooden performance actually represent a step up in the acting stakes. In other words, by not always sucking completely in every single film he convinced us that maybe he didn’t suck.
So in coming to a new Kanooie film, you don’t ask ‘Was he good?’, you ask yourself instead ‘Did he not suck too badly?’
Honestly, my man Kanooie has given some of the suckiest performances of the last twenty years. How about playing John ‘I’ve been chased by bloody wolves’ Harker in Bram Coppola’s Dracula? Or confusedly playing the character an entire religion is based on in Bertolucci’s execrable Little Buddha? The crappily acted Southern lawyer in Devil’s Advocate? Or the awful, truly awful title character in Johnnie Mnemonic? Or the nut-punchingly bad dancing serial killer in The Watcher? These, my friends, are performances for the ages, a legacy to live on and be mocked for centuries to come.
Director Francis Lawrence’s claim to fame is that he’s directed some Britney Spears videos. I guess you’ve got to start somewhere. Constantine stinks of ‘first film’, and it shows in every second scene. But I think for a first effort Francis hasn’t done too badly. It’s not a great film, I wouldn’t even call it a good film, but it’s not so bad that he should be ashamed to ever again go to family events. Because, take it from me, if you put your life on the line and put something out there like a novel or movie, if it’s shamefully bad then your family are the least forgiving of all.
Based on the comic book property Hellblazer created by Garth Ennis, Constantine belongs to that sub-genre of fantasy that explicitly uses imagery and concepts derived from both the Bible and the myriad array of occult crappiness that has arisen over the last bunch of centuries. You might think it’s in line with the X Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer type of mythologies, but it’s closer to stuff like the Prophecy trilogy and anything that has the whole End of Days / Book of Revelations going for it.
It’s funny that the market that you’d have thunk would’ve been most keen on this genre (evangelical nutjobs who pray excitedly every day for The Rapture) are the least likely to go and see it. You’d have thought that the millions of freaks that voluntarily went and saw The Passion of Mel Gibson’s Christ multiple times would have been all tingly about a film that bases its premise on the fantastical notion that both the white maned, bearded, sandal-wearing God in His heaven and the wicked Devil in His hell not only exist but view the world as a chessboard. It’s one of the rare places in pop culture entertainment where their collective psychosis is taken seriously and given more than a moment’s credence.
And yet they weren’t interested. I guess it’s because this film is aimed more at the kind of nerds that have made companies like New Line Cinema and Marvel powerful entities to rival Halliburton in both profits and influence, rather than the decent church-going folks out there. You know, the Comic Book Guys rather than the Ned Flanders types. In that case I would have to say they miscalculated majorly. None of the comic book’s fans are ever going to tolerate this.
It’s not that bad, really. Kanooie doesn’t suck that much. Honestly, there was only one scene where he made me cringe. Okay maybe two. But if you can get over the fact that Kanooie gets to keep getting acting jobs, you may come to accept him in his role as John Constantine. Constantine sees the world as it truly is, as the battleground between heaven and hell. He has seen hell first hand and knows it’s not a place he would want to hang out in permanently. And taking in to account something that he once did in a moment of bleak desperation, he now fights on the side of goodness and puppies against the vile demonic types in the hopes of earning himself a space on a fluffy cloud in the afterlife.
But both Heaven and Hell have their own plans for Constantine. Some complicated and ultimately nonsensical plot means that Constantine has an array of acquaintances who exist to serve his needs and then die for reasons I still can’t work out. Nor can I remember anything important or useful that they actually did. Also, there are some baddies whose motivations are less than meaningful, and when it comes time for them to bite the big one you have to wonder why we’re supposed to care.
And I didn’t, really. The reason it has taken me so long to write a review is because I’d forgotten I’d seen the film until today. I was walking down a street past a billboard advertising the flick when my girlfriend said ‘I bet you’re keen to see that, it looks like the crap you like to watch’, when some sliver of memory kicked in and I said ‘Wait, I think I’ve already seen it.’
So obviously it made a deep impression on me. As a film overall it’s something of a failure; as a genre flick however, it’s not too bad. It’s ironic and hurtful for me to say this, but I think their mistake was spending too much time on an inane plot that presents us with contrivances that are both meaningless and irritating, without any real characters to care about or at least be amused by, with an overall story that seems to have all this jeopardy and peril, but we don’t really grasp from what.
I love Tilda Swinton completely and utterly, but she is completely wasted in this flick. Because of the silly way in which the story chugs along she only gets to appear at movie’s beginning and then the very end. In fact most anyone only gets enough time for their face to register on your consciousness for scant seconds before they either die or disappear for no real reason. She plays the Archangel Gabriel, and is perfect physically for the part, with all the androgyny that she can muster. She’s okay in her first appearance. In her second she is wearing this cross between a hammock and a raver outfit which I found so distracting that it almost took the sting out of the awful dialogue she had to choke on and then spit out. There are a bunch of other strange and pointless cameos, not least of which is Peter Stormare as the Big Cheese from down below, who gets such little time on screen that I’m sure there are plenty of people who watched this who don’t have a passing familiarity with this genre who were wondering ‘Who the fuck is that guy supposed to be? And what’s that smell?’ And thus there are a string of deus ex machinas and even diablo ex machinas that will perplex and confound even those that should know better. Like me, apostate that I am.
I was sober when I watched this and I still can’t tell you what the point was supposed to be apart from someone hoping that Kanooie could be part of another extraordinarily successful genre franchise (you know, like Bill and Ted’s). I don’t think this will be getting a sequel in this or any other reality, alas. It never really felt like anyone apart from the director understood what was actually going on, and even then he probably needed an assistant to explain it to him.
Overall only Kanooie comes out of this okay. Many of the visuals are pretty good, with the representation of hell being genuinely inspired. They get the look of the place right, in that Los Angeles looks like a slightly cleaner version of the hotel from Barton Fink or the world taken from the movie Seven. The mishmash of elements is also quite interesting to me, with the techniques Constantine possesses being often more interesting to me than what he actually achieves to drive the plot onwards. But then when they have bits like an utterly inexplicable lift from the Blade films where for no reason that mattered Constantine battles a room full of demons who turn into ash upon being killed, then you know the director or the screenwriter didn’t really have a clear idea of where they were going and why they should go there. It’s definitely not as creepy as they think it is, either.
Speaking of creepy, I have to say that, upon seeing the trailer for the Tim Burton version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I have to wonder what the fuck they were thinking: from the trailer it looks far less creepy in the Gene Wilder sense and far more creepy in the Michael Jackson sense. It looked awful and I hope I’m wrong about that.
The virtue of Constantine as a character is that apart from his ability to see demons and angels amongst the populace, he is still an essentially human character. He’s not super-strong, nor immortal, nor magical in any other sense. He has knowledge and skills which help him battle the forces of evil, but retains a believably mortal, human motivation for his actions. Even something so simple they manage to fuck up for this film.
Honestly, if you were a fan of the Prophecy films (that starred Christopher Walken in the role of Gabriel, with similar effect), then you might go bugfuckingly crazy for this film. In fact the people that loved that trilogy are about the only people that will have the requisite tolerance required to enjoy this film. The rest will probably forget it as quickly as I did.
5 times you will laugh as Kanooie tries to pronounce a phrase in Latin out of 10
“Heaven and hell are right here, behind every wall, every window, the world behind the world. And we're smack in the middle.” - Constantine