It’s too early for me to tell if Constantine is the kind of movie that incurs unmitigated scorn from the critics and then “opens wide” with huge grosses, making it a box-office smash with the ever-mystifying moviegoers. All I know now is that I deeply loathe the Heaven-and-Hell genre to which this cinematic comic-book spectacular belongs-particularly in this age of rising theocracy in America, presided over by a President who believes in the Second Coming and is willing to act on it (as demonstrated by his relentless assaults on the environment and by his shrewdly timed monster deficits, intended to bankrupt his successors so the Apocalypse can be hastened). After all, once all the trees and birds and animals and fishes are gone, and the United States has defaulted on all its bonds, what is left but for God to get on with the task of rewarding the faithful by sending them to Heaven, and consigning the sinners and unbelievers to Hell?
On its own terms, Constantine presents a singularly pessimistic vision of human existence as an unending struggle of angels and demons for the souls of earth’s inhabitants. The best that we mortals can hope for is a life of pain and sorrow before we are shuffled off to Heaven-or Hell.
I have no idea what the various loudmouth authorities are going to say about Constantine, if they choose to say anything at all. Still, I’m a little surprised to find something so terminally noirish and despairing included in our staple of popular entertainment, both in its cinematic and its earlier comic-book (or “graphic novel”) manifestations. Needless to say, I’ve never read any of the 200 or so issues of DC Comics/Vertigo’s Hellblazer or the 15 graphic novels on which the screenplay, by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, is based. The director, Francis Lawrence, is a much-honored specialist in the razzmatazz of music videos, an appropriate apprenticeship for the special-effects-loaded Constantine, with its small army of magician-like technicians.
Keanu Reeves plays John Constantine, a strangely unkempt, obtrusively chain-smoking, constantly apprehensive figure whose tormented back story is revealed gradually in bits and pieces. As it turns out, since childhood Constantine has had the unusual ability-he considers it a curse-to recognize all the strange creatures sent from Heaven and Hell to recruit humans for God and Satan. These angels and demons cannot be recognized by ordinary people and thus go about their workaday activities for good and evil undetected.
But Constantine, tired of his accursed “gift,” commits suicide. After spending only two minutes in Hell, he decides he wants out, and he returns to a life dedicated to getting back in God’s good graces by destroying all the Devil’s emissaries wherever he finds them. In the movie, Los Angeles plays the spiritual battlefield, rendered in both its earthly reality and its ravaged mirror image in Satan’s realm.
I must confess at this point that as a reformed ex-smoker (I ended my compulsive four-pack-a-day habit in 1961), I almost yelled out “SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOU!” at Constantine as he ostentatiously began lighting up yet another cigarette. As it turned out, this repressed, Bloomberg-like outburst was completely unnecessary, since-as the Devil later tells Constantine-his deliberately self-destructive smoking habit has given him incurable lung cancer, thus shortening the time that Constantine has to escape Hell (the inference is that Constantine has remained in a suicidal mode even after returning from his first attempt).
The plot only gets murkier when Rachel Weisz enters the picture in the dual role of twin sisters, Angela and Isabel Dodson. When Isabel leaps off the roof of a psychiatric hospital-she was locked up after she reported seeing the same kinds of “half-breeds” from heaven and hell that Constantine can see-Angela, a police detective, asks Constantine to help investigate the case. Angela is convinced that Isabel, a devout Catholic, would never have risked eternal damnation by committing suicide and therefore must have been murdered.
Constantine declines at first to help Angela, but when he sees a demon following her, he intervenes to destroy the threat, while beginning to wonder if Satan has some new plan afoot to outmaneuver God. I can’t promise that you won’t become increasingly incredulous as this point, as the story’s murkiness becomes pure muck with a series of explosion-ridden wrestling matches between Constantine and a steady procession of beast-like demons that take the film on mini-excursions through Satanism somewhat akin to the more accomplished visions of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973).
The Devil actually tries to use Angela as the unholy vessel to bring his son into the world. Fortunately, he fails. But this doesn’t make life any easier or happier for Angela, Constantine and the rest of us. We still suffer during our stay on earth, and Angela and Constantine go their separate ways, even forgoing the pre-fadeout kiss.
This thumbnail synopsis doesn’t begin to exhaust all the mind-boggling complications and digressions that make Constantine so stressfully confusing to an ancient movie mariner like me. Kids today must love to be challenged at every turn by some idiotic change in the rules of engagement.
For example, there’s Father Hennessy (Pruit Taylor Vince), a burnt-out priest who has to call on Constantine to perform the film’s opening exorcism on a little girl invaded by something called a “soldier demon.” All the usual pea-soup convulsions we’ve become so familiar with over the years follow. Why Father Hennessy is in such a damaged state is never explained, as far as I can remember.
Then there’s a character called Midnite (played by a charismatic Djimon Hounsou), who runs a so-called “neutral” nightclub where half-breeds, both angelic and demonic, can mingle in their natural deformed states. Constantine and Midnite engage in some stormy conversations about some mysterious “chair” that can enable our hero to confront Satan and his followers more directly. Why exactly Midnite has chosen to remain neutral between God and the Devil is something I must’ve missed amid all the distracting special effects.
And then there’s the unnervingly androgynous angel Gabriel, played by Tilda Swinton, who seems to have a monopoly on unnervingly androgynous roles. Her Gabriel is an angel with attitude, determined to give Constantine a hard time in his quest for God’s forgiveness. She’s eventually punished for her obstructionism by losing her wings and becoming a miserable human being like the rest of us.
Chas, a young, nervous, fast-talking driver and eager acolyte employed by Constantine, is played in male-ingénue mode by newcomer Shia LaBeouf. This almost cartoonish character is rewarded for his devotion and timely assistance to Constantine by having a demon smash him against a ceiling a couple of times until he dies. But, hey-no one said fighting Satan was easy.
A similarly grisly fate befalls Beeman (Max Baker), who is described in the production notes as a “scholar with a talent for acquiring ancient religious artifacts with powers to heal, protect or destroy. Procuring such obscure items as a strip from Moses’ cloak, a screech bottle from Amityville or stones from the road to Damascus, he pressed these potent relics into Constantine’s hands because, not being a warrior himself, it’s the only way he can help.” Bye, bye, Beeman.
On the Devil’s side of the histrionic posturing is the nauseatingly pretty-boy half-breed demon Balthazar (played sneeringly by Gavin Rossdale as if he were Jude Law on steroids). For Satan himself, Peter Stormare plays the archfiend with a degree of cynical calm, wearing a white suit that stands out amid all the rest of the dismally darkened mise-en-scène. Yet Satan fails to nail either Constantine or Angela, though I can’t exactly say why.
(I suspect that there is something of a tease involved in the proceedings that I just don’t get.)
Still, one of the silliest moments I can remember is when Angela asks Constantine if he wants her to take off all her clothes (heavy, voyeuristic anticipatory breathing) before immersing herself in a tub of water for some occult maneuver that will almost drown her. Constantine pauses significantly and, when she asks why, replies with a half-smile, “I’m thinking”-after which, half-exasperated, she plunges into the water with most of her clothes on. (Drat!) Was there some ratings problem here or what? And is this any way to fool around when the world is menaced by Satan?
And, almost as in a hallucination, I retain a final image of Mr. Reeves in my mind, passing up his regular cigarette to chew a piece of gum. The strange thing is, I’ve always felt that Mr. Reeves was underrated as an actor ever since Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994), at the very least for making the most ridiculous movies just a little less ridiculous. He has his hands full with Constantine, of course, but I can’t think of another actor who would not have been even more ridiculous in such a crazy part.
Children of War
Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly was filmed in a village in Iraqi Kurdistan, on the border between Iran and Turkey, and is being distributed as an Iran/Iraq co-production. The timing of the film’s release here reminds us of the scant coverage in our media of the travails of the Iraqi people, and particularly of the children, who over the past few decades have suffered at the hands of both internal and external forces. Still, distinctions must be kept in mind between the problems of the Kurds in the north, and those of the Shiites and Sunnis in the rest of the country. The point is that the ideological complexities of any film set in contemporary Iraq is at least partly the product of its location and its sponsorship. An Iranian director making a film in a Kurdish anti-Saddam area of Iraq would be expected to have nothing good to say about either Saddam or George Bush 41 and 43, whom Mr. Ghobadi lumps together (albeit indirectly) in this dedication of his work: “To all the innocent children in the world-the casualties of the policies of dictators and fascists.”
Mr. Ghobadi reveals the genesis of his film in his director’s statement: “Three days after the collapse of Saddam, I went to Baghdad to show my film, Songs of My Motherland (2002), as it was being released. Just as the superpowers were sending heavy weapons to Iraq, my purpose was, on a symbolic level, to contribute artistically to what was going on.
“With the small DV camera I was carrying, I shot for a few weeks what I had witnessed in Baghdad, as well as in the other cities.
“Back in Iran, I had second thoughts, and a few days later I went back to Iraq to make a film about what had upset me-the mined lands, the crippled children, the people at a loss, the worsened security situation-it looked as if the war was just beginning.
“We shot with a small crew (it took me three months to obtain the green light to shoot in Iraq.)”
The movie begins a few days before the American invasion of Iraq. The Kurdish villagers are desperately searching for a satellite-dish antenna that will enable them to keep updated on the coming conflict through foreign television-news broadcasts, considered more reliable than the ridiculously censored government accounts. Even so, the villagers are careful to avoid the officially forbidden channels showing licentious Western programs.
The bulk of the movie, however, is concerned with a steady swirl of children, boys and girls, many carrying smaller family members on their backs. Their leader is a venturesome, at times dictatorial boy hustler nicknamed “Satellite” because he has figured out a way to trade in radios and a little cash from the village elders for a satellite dish; and since only he can translate the English-language broadcasts into Arabic for the villagers, he is in constant demand. But his main source of income comes from hiring gangs of boys to “harvest” the dangerous land mines sold by American and Italian firms to Saddam for his war with Iran and suppression of the Kurds.
We watch children who have lost arms or legs from the seemingly omnipresent mines, and somehow we know that the film is destined to end with a heart-rending “accident.” It does, and it’s somewhat disturbing for those of us who found the American invasion of Iraq at least somewhat questionable to realize that Saddam was indeed a monster; in truth, no one in the film mourns his downfall. (Though he was hardly the only monster in the world in a position of power, then or now.) The only thing we can do is look helplessly at the eloquent faces and resilient spirits of a horde of nonprofessional child actors acting out the traumas of their native land. Still, there are limits to this approach, both as a strategy of emotional exploitation and an instrument of political analysis. It is simply too easy to weep over maimed children.