Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is an exorcist who lives in the shadows, with only a packet of cigarettes and Chas his driver for company.
Though he is also occasionally visited by Beeman (Max Baker), a brilliant yet jigglingly nervous relic-finder, who brings him “bullet shavings from the assassination attempt on the Pope, holy water ampules from the river Jordan, and oh you’ll like this, a screech beetle from Amityville!”
I’m struck with the similarities between John Constantine and John Wick, Keanu Reeves’ decade-later, career-rejuvenating film. In fact Constantine could almost be an occult prequel, John Wick: Book of Revelation. What is an exorcist if not a religious hitman? And Papa Midnite’s bar, drowning in red light, with rules of neutrality so no heavenly or hellish business can be conducted there, could easily be the Continental with angels and monsters replacing opposing assassins.
Plus of course the suits Reeves favours in both. There’s no Daisy the dog in Constantine but at one point he borrows Rachel Weisz’s cat Doug. And both are trying to atone for previous sins but feel themselves ultimately doomed (John Wick and Constantine, not Daisy and Doug). Even the music, particularly when he sends a room of demons back to hell, is Wick-like, while the sprinkler system rains down holy water.
“He who possess the Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in his hands”, we are told at the beginning of this tale of Godly hypocrisy and a new, satanic dawn. It’s been missing for decades, until two Mexicans, scavenging in the dust, accidentally open up a Nazi vault.
Actually it looks pretty small, but Christianity has always liked to big up its relics. If anyone ever put together all the splinters and shreds of bark claimed to be part of the One True Cross it would stretch from Hell to Heaven; and there are enough martyrs’ finger bones around for every saint to have 20 slightly charred digits on each hand.
But that blade is clearly important, as one of the scavengers is instantly killed then develops red symbols on his wrists.
Back in LA, a girl is crawling over her ceiling, though by the time Constantine gets to her, she’s tied to the bed. (I sympathised, as looking super-rough with bloodshot eyes, freaking out when the curtains are opened, and then seeing a hideously ugly creature in the mirror, is basically me the morning after a school mums’ night out.) Constantine works his, er, magic, though it’s clear something is up, that the rules are changing – and demons that should never reach our plane are trying to break through.
Constantine is gorgeous but clearly ill, with that waxy pallor the unwell but still upright have. He’s coughing up blood in between smoking cigarettes and sending demons back to hell, and his lungs are riddled with tumours. His doctor doesn’t think she can save him again and suggests he make arrangements, but: “No need. I already know exactly where I’m going”.
Because Constantine is destined to burn for all eternity: as a child, terrified by the visions of torment he had been gifted, he tried to kill himself. And despite being resuscitated after spending minutes in hell, he is now to be punished for taking his own life.
Yes, it turns out God is more Old Testament than New, with more in common with Satan than we thought. He’s made a long-term deal with the devil that their half-breed demons and angels can influence humanity (we are but “finger puppets” says Beeman), without directly intervening. So throughout their long, drawn-out fight for our souls, they’ve been acting like Cold War superpowers, alternating backroom deals with proxy wars.
Angela (Rachel Weisz), whose devout sister Isabel has jumped off a roof, seems reasonably religious herself, trying to persuade the bishop to allow her sister a Catholic burial as she’s convinced Isabel would never commit suicide. Though at other times she claims she doesn’t believe in Satan. “You should, he believes in you” replies Constantine (a reminder of that old saying, that the greatest trick the devil ever played was making us think he didn’t exist).
Constantine and Angela get off to a shaky start. He’s incredibly rude to her, but soon the strange happenings (demonic attacks, plagues of beetles), combined with Angela’s desperation to find out about her sister, mean he decides to help. And what follows is a fight not just for Isabel, but ultimately everyone else too.
“You’re fucked!” announces Tilda Swinton as the androgynous Archangel Gabriel, cool in a suit and tie. She enjoys reminding Constantine of his fate, mocking his attempts to buy his way into heaven if he can only send enough demons back to hell. (Which certainly lives up to its name; a post-nuclear, urban sprawl of fire and twisted metal under an orange sky, with souls screaming and demons springing.)
Swinton is brilliantly, icily patronising towards Constantine about his doomed soul. And Reeves is nihilistically good as a dead man walking, initially doing everything through self-interest that he knows won’t work, though later prepared to make a sacrifice because it’s the right thing to do. His flip-flopping, as against his better judgement he becomes increasingly emotionally attached to Angela, just amplifies his loneliness, while Weisz perfectly portrays that exquisite embarrassment of being the one constantly pushing for a bit more.
Gavin Rossdale plays half-breed demon Balthazar in a striped suit like an 80s city boy and he’s frankly pretty ropy, unless he too is trying to convince us that he’s a made-up joke. Beeman is a joy though – he’s only in a handful of scenes, but his scholarly delight in ancient texts, and pride in his abilities to get hold of the weirdest and rarest religious artefacts, is so winning: “easy there, hero. That’s dragon’s breath!” I thought you couldn’t get it any more, questions Constantine. “Yeah, well, I know a guy who knows a guy…”
I first saw this film a few years ago. I loved it then, though often I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, or why they were where they were. I didn’t find any more enlightenment this time around, though Constantine’s dark world, illuminated only by the click of his gold lighter, the callous streetlights of LA, or the burning fires of hell, is so beautifully created that doesn’t really matter.