Hell’s Angeleno

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Smelling blood and ink, I was eager to get in on the incipient graphic-novel/comic-book backlash. But I guess I’ll have to wait for, maybe, Batman Begins, because I had too much fun at Constantine, a delirious yet poker-faced take on a warlock private eye, based on the DC comic Hellblazer. Keanu Reeves hunts down demons who take the form of everything from a swarm of roaches and snake-human hybrids to something still scarier: the lead singer of Bush, Gavin Rossdale, eyes aglow as a “half-breed”: part human, part devil-spawn, all hambone.

Reeves glides through Constantine in a black suit and tie, white shirt, and black raincoat. Yet the only things that rain down upon him in these mean streets of Los Angeles are what appear to be possessed fruit flies trying to smother him, and Tilda Swinton as the archangel Gabriel, descending with white wings like a pansexual extra from a Tony Kushner play.

The script, by comics writers including Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano, is based on a highly self-conscious mix of theology, mysticism, and noir fiction, and it has a witty gimmick: Constantine tried to commit suicide as a teen and has spent years trying to get either God or Satan to remove him from the torture of material existence—in this case, the literal hell of Hollywood. But since neither supernatural being will give up claim upon his soul, Constantine chain-smokes and protects others from netherworldly attacks, performing exorcisms and shooting fiends with a shotgun outfitted with a Christian cross as its barrel.

Director Francis Lawrence has done some terrific videos for Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears (a pox upon your snickering!), and here he deploys more swirling, ominous overhead shots than Orson Welles did in Touch of Evil. He’s also clearly studied his David Cronenberg circa Scanners and Videodrome for queasy images like a baby hell-spawn scuttling just beneath the surface of a woman’s exposed belly.

In Constantine, Satan is a prissy Antichrist who wears a white suit with a debonair white pocket hanky, and is referred to as “Lou” (as in Lucifer). He’s played by a leering Peter Stormare. Reeves, meanwhile, has confidently entered his self-parodic period. You’ll enjoy his wry post-Matrix murmurs and squinty stares. And you don’t have to live in L.A. to get a kick out of the comically bemused way he invokes the city’s banal geography: “A demon just attacked me on Figueroa, right out in the open!”

Comics geeks know that Constantine was originally British and blond. Thank the overtaxed Lord for small casting blessings, because this movie, with its heavy load of Catholic mysticism, needed Reeves’s knowing humor to rescue lines like “God’s a kid with an ant farm.” I also appreciated the way Constantine’s God has a wicked sense of humor that’s at least the equal of Lucifer’s—the Old Man hasn’t fared this well in a piece of popular art since Milton’s Paradise Regained.

Directed by Francis Lawrence.
Warner Bros.

Hell’s Angeleno