Constantine (15)

Hey, Satan - go kiss my holy knuckle-duster!
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The Independent Culture

Like the peace of God, the new Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine passeth all understanding. The forces of evil are abroad in Los Angeles, where ravening demons stalk the streets and the damned patronise exclusive nightclubs, striking the kind of poses last seen in 1980s vodka commercials. John Constantine - a sort of theological Philip Marlowe - is called on to get to the bottom of things, which he does literally, by visiting Hell. Apparently you can get there quite simply, using a domestic cat and a basin of water; you marvel that the film wasn't prefaced by a kids-don't-try-this-at-home warning. Hell is essentially Los Angeles after a nuclear attack, with palm trees ablaze and hordes of Francis Bacon demons with their scalps sliced off. As I recall, the last time a digital blockbuster visited Hades, in Vincent Ward's barmy What Dreams May Come, it was inspired by the Doré engravings of Dante, and you had to be careful in case you stepped on Werner Herzog's head (presumably he was there searchi

Like the peace of God, the new Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine passeth all understanding. The forces of evil are abroad in Los Angeles, where ravening demons stalk the streets and the damned patronise exclusive nightclubs, striking the kind of poses last seen in 1980s vodka commercials. John Constantine - a sort of theological Philip Marlowe - is called on to get to the bottom of things, which he does literally, by visiting Hell. Apparently you can get there quite simply, using a domestic cat and a basin of water; you marvel that the film wasn't prefaced by a kids-don't-try-this-at-home warning. Hell is essentially Los Angeles after a nuclear attack, with palm trees ablaze and hordes of Francis Bacon demons with their scalps sliced off. As I recall, the last time a digital blockbuster visited Hades, in Vincent Ward's barmy What Dreams May Come, it was inspired by the Doré engravings of Dante, and you had to be careful in case you stepped on Werner Herzog's head (presumably he was there searching for Klaus Kinski).

These days it seems nothing less than the truly apocalyptic will justify the huge expense of CGI special-effects movies. The trouble is, we've recently seen Apocalypse of one kind of another so many times - Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact - that we're barely impressed any more. In the Matrix trilogy, the universe actually ended and then, simple as anything, began all over again, proving that in Hollywood, they interpret Nietzsche's theory of eternal recurrence as meaning: never rule out another sequel.

Constantine is ostensibly just another comic-book adaptation, based - tenuously, as far as I can gather - on the Hellblazer strip and a character originally devised by Alan Moore. But it has metaphysical pretentions. Reeves's John Constantine is a two-fisted type who zaps Lucifer's legions with holy water, a sanctified knuckle-duster and a golden 1920s-style Gat gun seemingly on loan from the Vatican armoury. A freelance exorcist by trade, he's first seen curing a nasty case of the Linda Blairs with methods that Max von Sydow never dreamed of. "I need a mirror! Now! At least three feet tall!", he barks - a line that presumably comes to Reeves rather easily.

Walk down any LA street and the air is alive with winged, fanged furies, although no one seems that bothered: "What were those things?" asks Rachel Weisz's cop, as if she'd just come across something funny in her seafood salad. The most impressive apparitions, however, are the more or less human ones: notably, the "half-breeds" who visit earth to influence humans for good or evil. In the case of the nefarious Balthazar, he looks as if he might offer you some questionable financial advice; played by British rocker Gavin Rossdale, he's a Terence Stamp smoothie in pinstripes, his handsome smirk concealing a face of mouldy cabbage. Then there's Gabriel, played by Tilda Swinton, who turns up in the rummest things these days: Vanilla Sky was a far cry from Jarman, but that was nothing. There was always more than a dash of Roswell in Swinton's features, and here she's really unearthly as a seraph in pink socks and a Phil Oakey haircut, coolly appraising Constantine's chances of eternal salvation: "You're fucked."

Technically, Constantine is damned because he once attempted suicide; in any case, he's now successfully trying it the slow way, with a 30-a-day habit, presumably contracted while developing an ostentatious manner with a Zippo lighter. He smokes so heavily that the whole city looks impregnated with his tar: his Blade Runner-style apartment is virtually caramelised. The fate of humanity, we're told, is the result of a wager between God and the Devil, and you can't help thinking that Reeves's career is itself a wager between Hollywood casting agents, to see whether a slab of varnished oak can be turned into gold. Reeves is more inert here than ever, his somnolent basso drawl sounding like an attempted Robert Mitchum impersonation that has come out as John Wayne instead.

Like so many MTV graduates, director Francis Lawrence thinks in three-minute chunks, so Constantine has no internal economy: once a film has gone to Hell (in whatever sense), it doesn't have much else left to impress us. Admittedly, Lawrence has a few natty tricks to hand, or rather his design and CGI departments do: I certainly liked the demon made out of assorted wriggling vermin, although you're always aware with these things that you're seeing snazzy new software packages put through their paces.

The most intriguing thing about Constantine is a curious opportunistic streak. The film may simply look as though it's stealing barefacedly from The Exorcist, The Omen and the rest of the Seventies spawn-of-Satan cycle. In fact, those films have themselves been reworked more recently by the bizarre phenomenon of evangelical pulp movies backed by religious groups, some of which have done surprisingly well at the US box-office: explicitly fundamentalist end-of-days dramas such as Left Behind, The Omega Code and its sequel Megiddo. It's not implausible that the worldly souls at Warner Bros have decided that this genre - not to mention that ultimate God-bothering blockbuster The Passion of the Christ - represents a new audience ripe for the picking. In which case, all Constantine's woolly crypto-theology may actually be as hard-nosed a selling point as the digitals.

As it happens, however, although Satan is routed (he's played with charismatic sleaze by Peter Stormare in a disco suit), Constantine also manages to foil a sort of Apocalypse Now conspiracy by the Other Side, so the film might not be entirely uncongenial to those of you who entertain more of a Philip Pullman attitude to the divine.

Even so, if you're really after a demons-among-us romp, you'd be better off renting the recent, extremely jolly Hellboy, or better still The Day of the Beast, a 1995 Spanish horror-comedy in which a renegade priest and a heavy-metallist team up to stomp the Antichrist. It's funnier, cheaper, ruder and it has some nice views of Madrid.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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