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Constantine - Irresponsible, Humorous, and Smart

February 15th, 2005 | 4 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

Despite an entirely preferential dislike of being startled, I liked it. I loved the hero, I hated the villain, and I actually laughed a lot. Though, I will say it is in appropriately subtitled. It should not be: “Hell wants him. Heaven won't take him. Earth needs him “ It should take its cue from 1954 award-winner On the Waterfront and say “The redemption of John Constantine.”

Every created image portrays some thesis about the way the world is; stories have the unique advantage of making this statement not only visually and musically but verbally and explicitly, by means of the monologues and dialogue of the characters.

Constantine tackles no easy subjects: its main antagonist is Satan himself (and his relatives), its sub-antagonists are demons, demon-possessed animals, and a curious third form of creature apparently invented for the story’s little world, “half-breeds.” The half-breeds are, from what I can gather, demons in human bodies, allowed by some divine sanction to inhabit our world and exert “influence” on human beings? They are not allowed to actually “break the rules” and do direct damage; that would upset "the balance.” That would screw up the bet between God and Satan, “the two original superpowers.” Hm. Yes, it tackles exorcism and faith, the paranormal and the divine, the angelic and the hellish, all the while serving you a healthy dose of Blade-esque violence, Matrix-style gun fighting, and a “boo!” or two to make you leave your seat.

What then is this story saying about God, the world and everything? It would be difficult to summarize thoroughly. A few key thematic moments are worth reviewing. If you want more, see the movie yourself (unless your stomach is easily upset by wretched, nasty, mutant death-beings suddenly and consistently screaming at you two inches [so to speak] from your face).

I will give one censure and one praise. Constantine, like Dogma, abounds with bold and daring, yet ultimately clumsy, portraiture of the Roman Catholic tradition. The movie simply does not get anything like an orthodox version of Christianity. Despite some interesting conversation starters about what hell might be like ("Heaven and hell are all around us, behind every wall and window.") I disagree with most of the points about reality (those made in earnest). “Do not let your faith be overshadowed by guilt.” Huh? Gabriel the man/angel. Huh? Corinthians 21. Huh? That said, this portrait is not the point of the movie and not the point of this review. For those who’ve never directly interacted with any form of Christianity, each of these myriad inaccurate minutia and misconceived tidbits deserve comment, for the sake of rebuttal and/or clarification. My tendency would be to waste 1000 words pointing out and ridiculing them one-by-one, but I will stick to more a much more important and substantial critique: the film-makers’ irresponsible use of words.

There is a large body of literature, and indeed an entire civilization or two, built on the premise that words have real meaning and unbelievable power. Even if one denies the power of words, or innocently underestimates it, to ignore it would be to take an irresponsible risk. Cursing (as in condemning) and blessing may actually do something, and, if so, that would be good to know before jokingly damning your friends or paying no attention to benedictions, say, from a pulpit. The makers of Constantine, I think, ignore the possibility of this power, and in doing so make the mistake of a child playing in a chemist’s lab. There are numerous incantations uttered as a part of the film. They make the plot go. OK. I am not complaining about their need to advance the story. But their portrait of exorcism is almost that of a caricature, and my simple point is that exorcism is real, so don’t mess. Or, if you’re going to mess, be careful. Also along this lines are the imitations of certain “religious" colloquialisms that find their way into the script. For instance, Neo's (Neo (did I just say that? I meant “John's") “for Christ’s sake” comment, and the moment when Rache Weisz curses Keanu Reaves. These references are cutesy and neat, but irresponsible.

By way of praise, the movie’s treatment of redemption is a good one. I am of the mind that there is actually only one true story, the “universal narrative” if you will. All other stories are variations on a theme. (A view actually held by Keanu Reaves as well.) If this is the case, the best bet for the purest form of this narrative is the Judeo-Christian story of God creating the world, man failing by choosing destruction and death, the son of God dying to make up for our mistake, then rising from the dead to be the perfect ruler and leading us to perfect joy and complete happiness we’ve all been dreaming about. All the pre-Christian myths foreshadow it, none of the A.D. myths can get away from it, Constantine doesn’t try, and for this I commend them. Perhaps unintentionally, John Constantine becomes an image of death and re-birth, a proof of the incredible satisfaction of sanctification. The movie follows this story-telling paradigm to a tee, to good end. I say “perhaps unintentionally” because, though Constantine is surely aware of its dealing with the themes of resurrection and self-sacrafice, considering the height of what’s been done with them in the past (think Dante), they must not be totally aware what they’re dealing with.

The second word of praise I will speak on behalf of the Constantine crew is their cool villain. In the "universal narrative" mentioned above, the antagonist is Lucifer or Satan. Many (all?) story-tellers have piggy-backed off how cool of a villain Satan is by using variations of this “Father of Lies”. Constantine goes for the gusto and makes Satan (along with his relatives) the villain, straight up. This choice works well for the plot, and, I think, is an accurate depiction of the way the world works.

Overall, it’s a thriller with some annoying accuracy errors, an immensely satisfying ending, and good character interaction. If you can use the E&O as conversations starters, the music as a tip-off for the scary parts, and the whole thing with a bit of a light heart, you will enjoy the interesting story of the professional exorcist, John Constantine.