Sunday, February 20, 2005


So, As mentioned here a short while ago, The League was deeply skeptical over the new Warner Bros. film, Constantine.

I'm not going to re-hash my reservations about the film AGAIN, so if you want to know what they were, and you were too lazy to click the link the first time, you may do so now. We'll be here when you get back.

Viewed without any prior knowledge of the Hellblazer comic books, I think Constantine stacks up fairly well. Or at least I think it does. It's sort of hard to tell. Jamie seemed to think it made sense, anyway.

Viewed with knowledge of the comic books, it was a sort of "Oh, why did they do that?" mish-mash of items from and not from the comics. The flick was definitely sculpted in the studio system, and thusly, a lot of stylistic choices were made from the second scene of the movie which I might not have agreed with, but which seemed to work fairly well.

To attempt to drop a synopsis of the plot here would either drag on too long or make the movie sound sort of more ridiculous than it really was.

Keanu Reeves plays a snarky version of Keanu Reeves as titular character John Constantine. To discuss Reeves' poor acting ability is to belabor the obvious, and yet, doing so fills me with a warm sense of self-satisfaction... Reeves, after dozens of movies and now at two decades as a major actor, is still one of the most wooden actors I can think of, and, honestly, I think he was terribly miscast for the role. The decision to add him into the mix was no doubt a business decision, made when the studios were misinterpreting the success of the Matrix films as being drawn from Reeves' 10-gigowatts of star power instead of Kung-Fu and explosions. Hoping to score big once again, WB tossed him into this picture, in order to, I guess, make another franchise picture. (For further examples, check out how 2 years ago some WB execs really, really, really wanted Ashton Kutscher to play Superman. Because he has a bajillion gigowatts of pure STARPOWER!!!!!!)

I didn't really notice Reeves' was looking so awkward until he had his scene at about page 30 with Gabriel, played by Tilda Swinton. Apparently this Swinton person is a very popular actress in a bunch of movies not containing robots, monkeys or people in capes, so The League saw her 11 years ago in Orlando and then immediately forgot all about her. BUT, she's really very, very good in the few scenes she appears in.

And therein lies Reeves' dilemma. Alone, in short, choppy scenes, he's okay. But give him the rest of the assembled cast to deal with, and suddenly he's sticking out like a sore thumb.

For people unfamiliar with the way Constantine works, and the way magic more or less works in DC Comics, they provide us with the token "Tour guide" character in the form of Rachel Weisz. She's also the love and interest, who serves as a landing pad for the exposition as Constantine moves from scene to scene. She's the lynchpin of the plot, and she plays her part about as well as could be expected, so I pretty much forgave her for taking on this thankless role.

Couple of points:

a) This is an odd movie for product placement, and yet there it is. A Chevy ad plays a small role in the film. Jamie and I had a short debate over whether or not Quizno's and 7-11 had paid for product placement (she believed they had, I wasn't so sure). But the fact of the matter is that a Quizno's does, in fact appear in the film in big, neon letters. And, you sort of think that perhaps Constantine is headed for the Quizno's after battling a buggy demon.

b) The poor Mexican dude. What a thankless, and, in the end, pointless role. That whole character and "storyline" needed a re-write and could have been eliminated. Spoiler here: Why did the cows die but people are immune? What was compelling the dude to make a run for the border? None of this is really ever fleshed out. It sort of just happens.

c) Papa Midnight's club was kind of neat, but with so few "normal" people inhabiting this movie, it fell into the same trap as movies like Underworld. It's all monsters, so, you know, what's special about any one of the characters? In this movie, there's nothing special about Constantine. He's just one of many of these folks running around the world.

It's worthless to sit back and say "Well, if I'd directed the movie, I would have done x, y and z." But this is my review, and I'm going to do it anyway.

This movie could have really benefitted from the "less is more" school of story telling. The first two scenes involve some large scale special effects, establishing for the viewer that Constantine and his like-minded mystical pals must be operating out in the open. By NOT showing a demon in the first five minutes, the movie could have tried to actually build a level of terror. After all, you aren't afraid of the dark when you're in a dark room, you're scared of what you can't see that might be out there. Sadly, this movie cost $100 million, so you know they aren't going to NOT show off their very expensive effects, and thusly, removed any terror element which could have helped to build atmosphere.

The movie seemed to want to pick up on a lot of neat little plot elements from the comics and cram them all into one movie. Unfortunately in doing so, it sort of created a "Hogwarts for taxpayers" filmic universe. You get to see John's neat toys, and see some of the magical crowd he runs around with. The movie invents a sort of "Q" character to provide John with his magical shot gun (seriously), his cockroach, his Nimbus 3000, and other doo-dads. They brought in characters from the comics (but to tell is to give away the plot, somewhat), and turned Chas from an old, long-suffering pal into an eager-beaver Robin proto-type.

The decision to add a "Q" character, on the outside, seems like a decent one. It ALMOST worked in Van Helsing, but not quite. But these "Q" guys are meant to assist people who are too busy punching people to fill out Purchase Order forms. The movie does re-cast Constantine as a guy who can kick-ass (as we witness in the 3rd reel) , which is a serious departure from the comics, where John gets beat up quite regularly. I think in the context of the movie, John being a ninja-master of magic sort of works, but it wasn't really necessary.

Oddly, of the elements which they did keep, two of the most important were given only the lightest of lip service.

1) Magic has a price. Jamie felt this was mentioned, and it was, but it also defines who John Constantine is from the comics. He's not a snarky bastard because he was born that way, he's a snarky bastard because life made him that way. He found out about magic, and it's cost him at every turn. If he's cutting jokes, it's in order to keep him from crying. One doesn't just muck with the laws of physics and not expect some backlash.

2) For John, these things tend to come back at him in the form of dead friends. When John goes out of his way to, say, prevent the end of known existence, and even if he's done everything just right, somebody ends up getting it. To make matters more interesting, these people are usually damned to follow John around for eternity. Some would speculate that John doesn't really see the ghosts, he's just suffering from some serious guilt and a derth of friends.

John actually mentions how he "doesn't need any more ghosts", but they never really elaborate.

Instead, the movie kind-of, sort-of makes him a wise-cracking jerk. But they never really commit. It's an odd choice, and it doesn't give Keanu a lot of room fo rhis already limited choices.

In a way, this movie was better than I was actually expecting, but that isn't really saying much. It's a renter, but it's not going to be one to be filed away for future generations of movie fans. I suspect comic fans will keep it alive on video for years.

Had they spent 1/4 of what they did, I think the producers might have felt less pressure to fill every scene with bat winged demons and zombie types. That wasn't the case, and I think for some folks, this movie is going to be fun. It has lots of crazy stuff, nifty explosions, and manages to treat the material seriously.

I'll put it this way: The League enjoyed seeing it, but isn't going to be running out to buy the poster for his dorm room.

On the plus side, the trailers for Batman Begins and Sin City had me giggling with girlish glee.

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