I’m struck by the similarities between demon hunter 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.
The message of this gloomily sad story, based on the Hellraiser comic books, is ultimately quite traditional – that trying to get into Heaven isn’t enough, it’s the truly selfless good deeds that matter. But its stark beauty, style, wit and doomed sadness (Swinton’s Archangel Gabriel is briskly unsympathetic, Reeves’ demon hunter wearily rude) may well bring more people to God – even if He’s not that nice and even harder to please than we thought – than any number of Sunday morning sermons.
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!”
It’s another relic, the Spear of Destiny, that holds most sway, 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 strange 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’ll admit I sympathised, having woken up after many a mums’ night out looking god-awful with bloodshot eyes, freaking out when the curtains are opened and then seeing a hideous creature in the mirror.) 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. His lungs are riddled with tumours and his doctor doesn’t think she can save him again. She suggests he make arrangements, but: “No need. I already know exactly where I’m going”.
His destination is Hell, after trying to kill himself as a child, tormented by the demonic visions he’d been gifted. Despite being resuscitated, he’s now to be punished for taking his own life.
It turns out that despite our retrospective rebranding of him as a 21st century liberal, 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, but soon strange happenings combined with Angela’s desperation to find out about her sister, mean he decides to help. What follows is a fight not just for Isabel, but ultimately everyone else too.
Tilda Swinton is a brilliantly needling and 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.)
Reeves is terrific as the forsaken, self-isolating dead man walking, still acting through desperate self-interest that he knows won’t work. Constantine’s flip-flopping as he becomes increasingly emotionally attached to Angela just amplifies his loneliness, while Weisz perfectly portrays that exquisite embarrassment of being the one pushing for more.
Gavin Rossdale plays half-breed demon Balthazar in a striped suit like an 80s city boy and he’s pretty ropy, unless he too is trying to convince us he’s a made-up joke.
Max Baker is a joy though – in only a handful of scenes, his character’s scholarly delight in ancient texts, and pride in his abilities to get hold of the weirdest and rarest religious artefacts, shines through: “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 years ago and often I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, or why they were where they were. Despite my continued love for it an accusation of style over substance has some merit. I didn’t find any more spiritual or filmic 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.
Watch the Constantine trailer: