While nearly all religions have notions of God and the Devil, good and evil, and the like, Catholicism seems to have a cinematic lock on such material when it comes to the portrayal of such matters and the eternal battle between them.
While some films before 1973 dealt with people batting demons in the name of religion, a little picture by the name of "The Exorcist" brought that subject to the forefront of public perception. Since then, a number of sequels and other Catholicism-related movies have dealt with the same material, but none has done it so well or with as many genuine scares.
One can now add "Constantine" to that list. The big screen adaptation of a graphic comic by the title of "Hellblazer," the film starts off with a bang in one-upping the finale from Friedkin's film and it certainly sports a big budget look and a decent cast.
Yet, once the introductory exorcism is completed and the rest of the story starts to come into focus, the filmmakers lose theirs. And with a star who seems to be possessed by Clint Eastwood or someone doing an impersonation of him, the result is a sporadically engaging and intriguing offering that progressively gets less scary as it literally and figuratively unravels.
I have no idea how faithful or not the film might be to its source material, but it does contain a compelling premise. Eternally damned for a bad choice earlier in his life, the title character is seeking to make amends with the big guy upstairs by constantly defeating the nasties from down below whenever they make an unwelcome appearance in an unwilling victim's body. The fact that he has terminal lung cancer means his time's running out, and an intermediary-type archangel isn't buoying his spirits or hopes of getting a reprieve.
Thus, he's a bit moody preoccupied when a police detective requests his help in discovering whether her sister's death was the result of murder (meaning she may or may not enter Heaven depending on how she lived her life) or suicide (that assures her an underground table for all eternity with you know who). And to make matters worse, the downstairs demons now seem capable of or at least intent on breaking the ground rules of well, crossing the chasm between Hell and Earth.
What's a guy -- who's doomed in more ways than one -- to do when faced with all of that? Well, if you're played by Keanu Reeves, it seems that the best option is to channel Eastwood (or at least the stereotypically gruff and no-nonsense characters he's played) along with a certain "Matrix" style, kick-butt demeanor.
All of which culminates in a film that has its share of engaging and thrilling moments -- most notably the action sequences -- but falters when it comes to drama, dialogue or most characterizations (notwithstanding any action-based physicality of said roles).
Reeves -- who last tangled with Beelzebub in 1997's "Devil's Advocate" and who some may say sold his soul to you know who for such a lucrative, A-list acting career -- has made much of his living playing, intense and focused characters.
Yet, while watching the actor do the same here, I couldn't help but see and hear the Eastwood persona oozing from nearly every pore of his body. I could paraphrase former VP candidate Lloyd Bentsen's famous debate line about knowing the real deal, but I imagine you've gotten the point already.
Other problems can be attributed to screenwriters Kevin Brodbin ("The Glimmer Man") and Frank Cappello's ("No Way Back") adaptation of the comic, as well as former music video and first time feature director Francis Lawrence's somewhat unsteady direction.
Simply put, and notwithstanding the premise and "time's running out" setup, the filmmakers start to lose control of the effort. Unfortunately, it eventually becomes more unwieldy and somewhat unnecessarily convoluted as it surprisingly meanders its way toward the finale without as much momentum at it could and should have had for a pic of this genre.
The "big" finale, though, at least offers one delight, and that's Peter Stormare ("Minority Report," "Armageddon") as the Devil himself. Maybe it was his wood chipper bit in "Fargo" that got him the role. Whatever the case, he's perfectly suited for it, and one's left with the feeling that he should have been featured in more scenes (the result as is stands as an extended cameo).
I would have also liked to have seen more of Tilda Swinton ("The Statement," "Vanilla Sky") and less of Rachel Weisz ("Envy," "Runaway Jury") in the film. I have nothing against the latter, but her role is so flat and basically boring compared to the fascinating and decidedly androgynous portray of the archangel Gabriel by Swinton. Purposefully nebulous in terms of gender and intent, the character similarly deserves more screen time than he/she gets.
The likes of Shia LaBeouf, Djimon Hounsou and Pruitt Taylor Vince are okay in their respective supporting roles despite not getting a lot of screen time and sometimes coming off like there's more to them and their stories than what appears on the screen.
Overall, I didn't mind watching "Constantine" and I have to admit that I somewhat enjoy watching Reeves playing intense if not exactly three-dimensional characters as he does here with aplomb. I just wish the entire film were as fun, spooky and tight as the opening exorcism scene, rather than starting to ramble and lose momentum.