Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Constantine Review - Con-stant-fusin.... ugh

Something is missing from Constantine. I never read the famous comic that inspired the picture, but I watched this movie and felt I was getting 80% quality to 20% misfire. The film is about a supernatural investigator and demon-hunter, now hired by a cop to find out why her twin killed herself. John Constantine finds himself at the heart of a war between Heaven and Hell.

I really didn't like Keanu Reeves when I was younger. Some have said that his acting is wooden, others have said they find him unattractive. All I can claim is that he often seemed a forced presence in many movies.

I long since got over my Keanu issues by the time I saw 2005's Constantine. I was inclined to give the man a free pass after The Matrix blew me away, and The Devil's Advocate completed my change of opinion. So why did Constantine feel a little off?

I put off this review a few times because is I didn't want to write "I'm not sure," as the answer. Many moments in the movie - the line about cats, the fx, the low-key tone, the action sequences - felt great. I enjoyed most of the twisty plots. I was also very much in love with the performance by the great Tilda Swinton, the nicotine jokes, and Rachel Weisz...

What makes the movie work is obvious: Constantine immediately throws us into a world and shows us how dangerous, dark, complex, and lived-in it all is. Very much like Star Wars and Raiders and other adventure movies, the dialogue doesn't do all the work for the audience, so the exposition seldom feels clunky.

In fact, those two movies might draw the best comparisons. John Constantine is, refreshingly, not the average hero. John is a surly, gruff supernatural mercenary, doing what he has to survive and stay alive. And he is desperate. Real good guys sneer at him, he's doomed to go to hell, has late-stage lung cancer, and Lucifer hates him so bad, the Devil would come to collect his soul in person.

John's also convinced that he can earn forgiveness or "get an extension" by killing enough demons, or even asking one for a favor... So what kind of deal will this guy work out when both sides of the unnatural world are suddenly swarming over town? And how many cigarettes can he smoke, anyway?

As to what's wrong with the movie... I only know for certain that Constantine doesn't leave you craving for more. That's a lot to say about a movie that you didn't want to see but weren't avoiding, and had no expectations of. Even with some great scenes near the close - the gun, punching Gabriel, the general plot of the climax - this picture doesn't quite engage the way it needs to.

Maybe Keanu downplayed the lead too much, draining the part of too much energy. I can't fault his acting much here, but maybe he's so coarse and terse that there's no connect with the viewers. It's odd for me to wonder that, since I actually like this performance. The way he looks and delivers his lines makes me sure he must've studied Clint Eastwood's performance from the Dirty Harry movies.

Or perhaps the movie needed to be even more mature than it already was. Maybe by including such a diverse cast of incidental characters, the movie is deprived too much of focus or energy. Or maybe it's that the story and its pace felt more appropriate for the last film in a franchise, not the first one.

Some people would say that the dividing line is that the lead is not meant to be a happy, huggy hero. Maybe there's simply too much talking about mystical this and magical that for people who just wanted a popcorn ride... I think I'm right in saying the film gets listless, but it's hard to say more.

This is all a shame, as often this pic's tone is engaging and a welcome change from Hollywood cliches. While Lucifer (Peter Stormare) may grate on me, the performance is fine; I'm just tired of seeing him in dirt-bag roles. And when Constantine sends him a message with just a gesture, it is genuinely hysterical. As is the very last shot. Also, Swinton is such a gorgeous angel.

All this confusion is even worse when you step back and think about this movie. It looks absolutely beautiful, the special effects match the camera-work for quality, and it's a shame that this film didn't encourage studios to put more money into these kinds of horror stories. Good horror pix always deserve some extra credit, because they're rare and it's a hard genre for doing "serious" work.

I'm sorry if you were misunderstood or badly-marketed, Constantine. I feel like you rode a really fine line between thoughtful and high-quality supernatural tale and something possibly made for unhappy metal-head/skater teenage boys. It's surprising that you still managed to tell a rich mythological story about a reasonably-cool anti-hero.

Constantine may be one of those movies where the 10-15% that doesn't work is enough to keep the whole thing from gelling properly. After I watched it, that's one thing I could say for certain. I just wish I could put my finger on exactly why this doesn't quite work - this pic easily could've been a critical and box office success...

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