October 19, 2005

Constantine


Okay, I'm a sucker for a decent apocalyptic action flick and Constantine is more than decent enough. Our action hero here is John Constantine, played by Keanu Reeves. It's the same role he played in The Matrix, plus a hacking cough and dusted over with more world-weary grit. But I say, keep on doing what you're good at, Keanu. And besides, The Matrix was an apocalyptic action flick as well, albeit dolled up as smarty-pants, cyber-punk existentialism.


The big difference is, when writing straight-up apocalyptic action material--even if you're simply cribbing material out of Catholic Eschatology for Dummies--you're going to end up with more and deeper substance than if you're trying to fake up the Meaning of Everything all by yourself. Which is why The Matrix ended up running on empty through the two sequels. There was ultimately no there there.

There's a lot more here here, even if the battle between good and evil comes down to cliched beat-em-up and shoot-em-up sequences. As with most movies these days, it just doesn't look like a Frank Miller comic, it is a comic (though one I've never read). And appropriately, as required by the genre, Constantine takes a simplistic, dualistic, Miltonesque approach to the material (all action movies are exercises in dualism).

Which, of course, means that the devil gets to show up in the last act and chow down on the scenery. It takes a good bad guy to make these movies work, and though most of the villains our hero and heroine battle are special effects monsters, Gavin Rossdale as the creepy Balthazar, Tilda Swinton as Gabriel (with a chip on her shoulder the size of a redwood) and especially Peter Stormare as the devil, make it worth it. I just wish they had more screen time (like, all of it).

I stress that Constantine belongs to the action flick genre, along with, for example, Schwarzenegger's End of Days (which I also enjoyed, so you know where I'm coming from). So that right there has me adjusting my expectations considerably downwards. The reward, as I've mentioned, is that some small aspect of actual Christian theology eventually gets treated seriously and hammered out. Okay, hammered into a twisted wreck, but at least there's metal under the mallet.

Most of the complaints I've read about the movie seems to be that it doesn't make sense and/or that it's not like the comic. I can understand the latter, but don't really care since I've never read the comic. As for it making sense, it made perfect sense to me, but, then, I grew up immersed in this stuff. In fact, all I really want out of this type of movie, besides it not boring me, is that at some point we get a good shot at a Devil & Daniel Webster debate, and here it does deliver.

Constantine's approach is to start more cynical than most--it makes End of Days look downright orthodox--putting it (initially) in the same league as Dogma and the Japanese series Angel Sanctuary (thumbs up on both). The formula is simple: pick some off-beat aspect of the theology and take it really literally. The result hit and miss, but theology is so rarely taken seriously even by the religions themselves, that the nugget in the bucket of gravel is worth the digging to me.

Oh, and be sure to watch the credits all the way through for the very last scene.

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