Archive for Monday, February 21, 2005

Cast helps pull ‘Constantine’ from comic book purgatory

(R) **1/2

February 21, 2005

There are a number of theories about what has the most impact on a
movie. Is it the script, the director, the budget, the effects?

I always had leaned toward the screenplay, until this year when a
pair of similar movies changed my mind: the biopics "Ray" and "Beyond
the Sea." Both were written like a TV movie of the week and prone to
thematic missteps. The difference was "Ray" had a perfectly cast
Jamie Foxx in the lead role and "Sea" had a way-wrong-for-the-part
Kevin Spacey.

"Ray" went on to earn six Oscar nominations. "Sea" drowned in bad
reviews and was ignored by audiences

Now casting has creeped to the top of that debated list.

Maybe that's why "Constantine," the latest comic-book adaptation, is
so effective at rising above its source material. The cast is
comprised of a quirky, unpredictable group of character actors that
can't help but put a fresh face on the same type of
supernatural-action tale that's resulted in tepid adaptations such as
"Hellboy" and "Spawn."

(It's sad how those casting directors never get any recognition.)

The movie is worth a look just to see British actress Tilda Swinton
("The Deep End") play the archangel Gabriel or stoic Swede Peter
Stormare ("Fargo") portraying Satan like an effeminate drug kingpin.
Even Bush singer Gavin Rossdale makes an impression as an impeccably
dressed demon named Balthazar.

And who could forget headliner Keanu Reeves? Usually I can -
especially when it comes to the collect-the-paycheck turn he gave in
the abysmal "The Matrix Revolutions." But the brooding Reeves is far
more dynamic in this thriller than his last dozen or so movies. It's
his best performance since 1997's "The Devil's Advocate," which also
placed him onscreen opposite Lucifer.

If "Angel Heart" is ever remade he might want to consider taking the role.

Reeves plays John Constantine, a paranormal investigator who often
partners up with the Catholic church to carry out exorcisms and
prevent underworld minions from mingling with humans. You know, the
usual send-demons-back-to-hell gig.

But time is running out for the man. Incessant chain-smoking since he
was 15 has left him with lung cancer. And since he committed suicide
as a youth but was "resurrected," he knows this sin ensures him a
reservation with the damned when he permanently dies. The proposition
haunts him because, "How'd you like to be sentenced to a prison where
half the inmates were put there by you?"

For Constantine's latest job he teams with a police detective (Rachel
Weisz) whose twin sister apparently committed suicide. She believes
her sibling would never have done such an act, and that there are
dark forces at work ... even darker than normal. Then when demons
begin walking the streets of Los Angeles, Constantine realizes the
normal balance in power has somehow shifted.

"We're finger puppets to them, not doorways," he says.

Based on the DC/Vertigo comic book Hellblazer (the title was changed
so as not to be confused with "Hellboy" or "Hellraiser"),
"Constantine" never delivers a story that is all that compelling. Yet
it manages to create characters who are worth the attention.

Constantine himself walks the cynical, aloof territory of most modern
noir heroes. But his skills are more interesting - specifically, his
ability to re-enter hell when needed. This requires a peculiar method
of "astral traveling" involving a pale of water and a cat.

Rookie director Francis Lawrence, a former music video veteran,
paints a rather visionary picture of Hades. It's depicted more like a
city that has suffered the aftermath of a nuclear attack ... with
ravenous demons.

This is one of many piercing visuals that do a fine job of creating
the off-balance, odd-angled world of modern comic books. Lawrence
handles these tricks well without overly relying on them. He also
proves better at juggling the neo-religious elements central to the
story far better than, say, the last two "Matrix" films. Suddenly,
Reeves doesn't seem so ridiculous.

But even though the casting is inspired (throw in turns by Pruitt
Taylor Vince as a overworked priest and Djimon Hounsou as an
omnipotent witch doctor named Midnite), not every choice pays off.
"Holes" star Shia LaBeouf portrays Reeves' youthful assistant, Chas,
in a role that could kindly be called extraneous.

"You're not a slave," he tells the kid. "You're a very appreciated
apprentice - like Tonto or Robin."
I think of him more like Incredi-Boy from The Incredibles. He's an
annoyance whose only function seems to be to help lure the teenage
audience to this rather heady, dark, R-rated venture.

Oh well, casting director Denise Chamain probably can't win every battle.

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