Take a 1930’s movie detective, a guy who shoots straight and talks tough. You know, the kind of guy who may have a soft spot for a dame in a jam but that doesn’t necessarily mean he believes what she tells him. The kind of who always seems to be walking down a rain-soaked street on a moonless night, smoking a cigarette.
Put him in today’s Los Angeles. So he has lung cancer from all that smoking and a bit of a punk-ish edge. And this detective has been to hell and back — literally.
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), originally a character in the graphic novel series, “Hellblazer,” is tracking targets from another plane. It seems that long, long ago God and the devil made a bet about humans. Angels and demons can attempt to influence the outcome but they must stay in their own plane, except, apparently, for a sort of everything-goes, supernatural version of Casablanca’s Rick’s Cafe Americain, complete with an “I stick my neck out for nobody” nightclub proprieter named Midnite (the fabulous Djimon Hounsou, who lights up every scene he is in, which is not enough).
Constantine’s job is to send the devils and demons back to hell.
There is a Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish artifact that is uncovered and starts making trouble right from the yow-inducing beginning. Then we get to see Constantine in action at an The Exorcist-style confrontation with a demon that has taken over the body of a young woman. Then a policewoman named Angela — do you think that name could mean something? — (Rachel Weisz) goes to confession and then has a shocking dream in which she jumps or falls from the top of a tall building. But it isn’t about her; it is about her identical twin sister, Isabel (which means “pledged to God,” by the way). And the dream is true.
All of this comes together in some way or other, but forget about all that; this movie is all about the visuals and the attitude, and both are are cool and striking, reflecting its comic book origins and music video sensibilities. Highlights include a battle with a rock star-like demon (played by real-life rock star Gavin Rossdale) in a sleek corporate boardroom, a sort of elevator to hell through immersion in water, and swarming CGI creatures and insects. Tilda Swinton as a furious Gabriel and Peter Stormare as Satan are nicely twisted but the usually-terrific Pruitt Taylor Vince and Shia LaBeouf have little to do but whine and nag.
The film plays with some fundamental philosophical and theological puzzles, but the concepts and the language are all sizzle, no steak. That’s more that can be said for the relationship between Reeves and Weisz. He achieves a nicely cool vibe somewhere between zen and exhaustion, but that never connects with Weisz’s earnestness and sense of loss.
Parents should know that the movie has extensive, intense, and graphic peril and violence, disturbing images, and suicides. Chracters are injured and killed. There is some strong language, though less than in many R-rated movies. Characters drink, and a character is a chain smoker and is dying of lung cancer. Some viewers may be concerned about the portrayal of theological concepts, clergy members, angels, and demons. Some viewers may be offended by the portrayal of the demonically possessed Mexican characters.
Families who see this movie should talk about their own notions of heaven and hell and free will. What matters most to John? To Angela? To Midnite?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy comic book movies like X-Men and Hell-Boy and other movies with striking visual effects like What Dreams May Come and The Cell. They may also enjoy Kevin Smith’s very controversial Dogma, a satiric take on the idea of angels and demons in the modern day with a couple of intriguing parallels to this film.