I'm going to describe some elements of the plot, so if you don't want to know, stop reading now.
Based on the Hellblazer comic from DC’s Vertigo imprint, the movie chronicles demon-hunter John Constantine’s efforts to prevent the end of the world. The story doesn’t start out that way, though. Constantine is presented as a bitter, cynical man who knows he’s doomed to Hell and wants to buy his way into Heaven by banishing demons. He’s aided by an assortment of odd characters who provide him with supporting abilities and information and are faithful to him despite his off-putting personality.
But when he meets an L.A. cop (The Mummy's Rachel Weisz) whose twin sister has died under mysterious circumstances, Constantine finds himself drawn into preventing an apocalyptic plot. Of course Constantine has to become the hero, whether he wants to or not. Fortunately the filmmakers found a way to make this happen that wasn’t trite or predictable.
One of the interesting features of this story is that it presents the Catholic view of Heaven and Hell as the prevailing reality. They didn’t try to shy away from specific elements of Catholicism, like the concept that suicide is a sin or the importance of Latin as the language of the Church’s holy mysteries. Constantine is also shown as a chain-smoker, something you don’t see much in movies with a present-day setting. And the locations where the story takes place aren’t slick and clean as they might be in other films; everything is run-down, worn, and slightly dreary, reflecting the way Constantine himself sees the world.
The vision of Hell that’s presented in the movie isn’t a particularly original one, but it’s visually interesting, especially the imagery of the demons Constantine has to battle. They aren’t the clichéd horned and hoofed variety, which is good because that imagery wouldn’t be frightening and these demons are at least a little bit scary. The movie wisely doesn’t spend too much time in Hell, but manages to get the point across that Hell is a Very Bad Place quickly and effectively.
The story also builds suspense nicely as it introduces Constantine and Angela, the police detective who becomes his ‘client’, and explains how the story of her sister’s death intertwines with the coming threat of Armageddon. Information is provided at just the right pace, and scary moments and plot revelations are timed for maximum impact. The whole thing works like a smoothly oiled machine, without any jarring moments that take the viewer out of the story. I’ve heard some complaints that Keanu Reeves wasn’t good in the part, but I found his performance just fine. My only quibble is that he seems a little too clean-cut and healthy for the nicotine-addicted Constantine.
This movie isn’t breaking any new ground, but it handles its subject material well. I was particularly pleased with the casting of the always interesting Tilda Swinton as the archangel Gabriel. She really makes the movie for me, along with Peter Stormare as Old Scratch himself. It’s hard to find a new way to present good and evil, angels and demons, that makes them interesting, but the makers of Constantine managed it.
If you can’t tell already, I like this movie a lot. I think Constantine is an underrated gem.