Let me first disclose that I am ignorant to the DC/Vertigo comic, Hellblazer, this film "Constantine" is based on. So if you want to know if the movie is faithful (no pun intended) to its graphic novel roots, you'll have to look elsewhere. As for whether "Constantine" suffices as a religious thriller/horror, I've got the goods; and for the most part, so does "Constantine."
The premise is one I've been waiting a long time for; a story of Heaven of Hell and the war they fight with Earth and its inhabitants stuck in the middle. As it turns out, God and the Devil are quite active. They both want the souls of humans but play by a set of rules they have agreed on.
The film centers around two main characters, both are Catholic, and getting into Heaven for Catholics is pretty easy, so says the angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), as long as you don't commit the greatest of all sins: suicide.
"Constantine" opens with our hero John (Keanu Reeves) performing an exorcist on a young possessed Mexican woman. That a giant demon emerges, trapped inside a mirror, is not what startles John. It's that the demon tried to leave the realm of Hell and interfere with humans on Earth. According to the pact between God and the Devil, angels and demons are forbidden from interfering with living humans.
When one does break the rules, John "deports" them back to Hell with custom made holy weapons of mass (there I go again with the puns) destruction. He's doing this dirty work to appeal to God for having committed suicide as a young teen. With time running out as a result of the cancer taking over his lungs from smoking what must have been and is at least fifteen packs of cigarettes a day, John's chances look bleak regardless of how many demons he sends back to Hell.
Early on John runs into a detective named Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) whose twin sister just committed suicide. It's a fact Angela can't swallow and suspects foul play. "She was a strict Catholic," Angela affirms John. And so he decides to investigate.
Throughout his missions John enlists a defrocked priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and a weapons supplier (Max Baker) to assist him with his hunting. But when they become threatened by Hell's forces the list of people he can rely on grows short.
John finds answers in Midnight (Djimon Honsou), a "neutral" party who's not supposed to get involved in the war but owns an interesting piece of furniture that allows you to get an up-close look at where the demons and unsaved souls collect.
The movie seems like it runs a lot longer than its two-hour duration, and depending on how engrossed you are into the story I imagine you might believe otherwise. The special effects are first-class, allowing us long glimpses of Hell and its demons. And while I still say the best visual description of Hell is found in the Robin William flick, "What Dreams May Come," "Constantine" is a sweet-looking spectacle.
The weakest part of the film is the detective character. Even though essential to "Constantine's" plot, I did not like Angela's story or believe she was a necessary character to tell John's tale. When you see the film, pay close attention to how Angela responds to what she learns early on about the war between Heaven and Hell and compare that to her big revelation near the climax and see if it makes much sense. It's a minor plot hole but sticks out if you too do not find yourself liking the female sidekick.
But "Constantine" is unique in that the Heaven/Hell genre is so little explored and rarely does it delve into the controversial aspects of Catholicism. So few films care to talk about the place you ultimately end up at if you don't declare Christ as your Savior at any point in your life. But it's not preached so I'm sure nonbelievers and people of other faiths will find no problem getting into this story and sympathizing with a Catholic destined for eternal torture and suffering.
One fear I had coming into the screening but was quickly put to bed was the fact that the movie was directed by one of those first-timers who's only experience is directing pop music videos. For a guy who's resume is limited to Britney Spears, Will Smith, Sarah McLachlan and Aerosmith, I'd say Francis Lawrence has a promising career ahead of him in film. He doesn't make that mistake so may MTV directors do when they hyper-drive the pace of their films by dissolving it into quick cuts and camera zooms.
If anything, Lawrence keeps the pace slower than the norm, allowing the audience to absorb the brooding scenery and crisp special effects. Whether you appreciate the backdrop or not is the litmus test for how much moviegoers unfamiliar with the graphic novel will enjoy the movie.
As you might expect the climax involves something similar to what Keanu Reeves experienced in "Devil's Advocate," the first film he was in that brought his character face to face with Satan. Here the confrontation isn't nearly as long but gets the point across nicely.
Because "Constantine" in print is a long series of graphic novels, there was no way all of it could be condensed into one film. Like the unbelievably bad Marvel screen adaptation of "Hulk," the movie has to spend considerable time covering the basics, and perhaps that is why I believe it doesn't live up to its full potential. With the introductions out of the way (and to be sure. worthy of an entire film by itself) I would not be surprised if an even better sequel is on the way.
Stay seated through the end credits to see what is really the last scene of film, showing what happens to the character I left out of this review.