When I read about this movie I knew I had to see it —- demons, hellfire, angels, exorcism, all duking it out for mastery over human souls.
In the center is Keanu Reeves’ character, a terminal lung cancer patient whose profession is demon-hunting and exorcism of the grisly sort. Reeves is waiting to die (and go, he knows, to Hell) as he spends his off hours in his apartment above a bowling alley in a seedy part of Los Angeles.
But something is amiss. After millennia of a gentlemen’s agreement between God and Satan to stay physically away from the real world, demons are trying to get through to the Real World — I mean, Los Angeles of today. Reeves investigates and gets dragged into a murder/suicide investigation that takes him back to his own suicide attempt as a teenager when he had the opportunity to spend two minutes (for him eternity) in Hell until his body was revived in the ambulance that was taking him to the hospital.
So far it sounds pretty comic-booky. But the way the movie is made provides a different type of experience. For example, the special effects are really well integrated into the story. Some are pretty grisly (a couple of these demons are really disgusting to look at) but at other times some of the sights are amazing. Angel wings, for example, are beautifully done. Tilda Swinton (Teknolust) really does look like an angel and plays here ambitious rule-breaking Gabriel with just the right touch of off-centeredness. And there’s a scene of a character walking through a room full of motionless suspended-in-air fragments of shattered glass that is truly magical (Repeat complaint: multiple special effects houses are credited at the end of the movie without explaining which effects they were responsible for; who did the wings? who did the glass?)
There’s a lot of wry humor in the movie, too. For example, I loved watching the hero give the finger to Lucifer as he approached the Pearly Gates, for example.
Overall, there is a Middle Ages feel to this movie. The Los Angeles pictured here has more in common with the demon infested paintings of Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch than the L.A. of The Terminator. The tug of war between God and Satan is on plainer view here which, in these days of corporate scandals, mercury poisoning, acid rain, and identity theft, the physicality of evil on display here is a different perspective. There’s a physical reality to this evil here that is, after all is said and done, a bit comforting. We know where we stand. We know there is good and evil. But. like in the Real World, good guys don’t always win, and sometimes we have to do unpleasant things to make our way through life.
By the way, this is another one of those films where if you stay through to the finish of all the credits you’ll be rewarded by one last sequence, one that is quite pleasing.
It is interesting to note that, while this move contains lots of violence, there is no gratuitous sex or nudity.
I rented the standard DVD some months after seeing the movie in a theater, wondering if my high opinion would be maintained on a second viewing.
It was. The plot was just as silly in parts (you can visit hell by holding your breath underwater?) but the humor and subtle jokes become even more visible.
Set design and framing of images is better appreciated on a second viewing. I missed the bottled water in Constantine’s apartment the first time around - a nice touch. And the view of bowling pin setup machinery from behind is eerie, rather like a giant spidery loom in action.
The collection of deleted scenes with director commentary is better than most. We learn, for example, that an entire character was deleted, and we get to see her a bit more here. (The director was right to remove her since it might have detracted from Constantine’s “loner” image and his relationship to the Rachel Weisz character.)
In summary, this is a fun movie with excellent casting and production values that hits the correct tone — solemn when necessary, and serious, but with knowing and subtle humor in good supply. It’s a perfect vehicle for Keanu Reeves and a worthy addition to the handful of comc-book-movies that I’ve enjoyed a great deal, including Daredevil, Sin City, and Hellboy.