There is something insane about a lack of doubt. Doubt, to me anyway, is what makes you human, and without doubt even the righteous lose their grip not only on reality but also on their humanity.
— Tilda Swinton, New York Times (6 February 2005)
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is in-between. For one thing, he resents the hell out of his ostensible gift, namely, the ability to see half-breed demons and angels as they manifest on earth. Because he didn’t know this was a gift when he was a kid, he panicked, thought he was miserably insane, and killed himself. For a couple of minutes, anyway. And when quick-thinking doctors brought him back to life, he’s still listed in the suicide column in God’s accounting, which means that he’s headed to hell for the afterlife. His time on earth has since been no bed of roses: angry, tense, and unhappy, still haunted by his special vision, he’s been smoking for some 30 years, means he’s got a powerful lung cancer, a racking cough and sickly demeanor, and teeters between life and death, until he’s all the way dead in a few months. All this makes Constantine mad. He’s a grumpy action hero for the Lord.
Based loosely on the DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer graphic novels character, the hero of Francis Lawrence’s Constantine is all about that in-betweenness. The very fact that he’s played by the seeming-ethereal, ever-boyish/girlish, Ted-Buddha-Neo-affiliated Reeves grants him a peculiar, if vaguely familiar mix of affects (few of them resembling the original character’s). Part hero and part rampaging fury, part blue-collar tough and part divine avenger, he’s made it his mission to send other in-betweeners, half-breed demons and other transgressors who appear on earth, directly to hell. Such policing of the boundaries — demons and angels are both supposed to stay in their designated realms, according to an old Paradise Lost-ish agreement — makes John at once a servant of God, and also, in his way, of the Devil. Accordingly, both make claims on his time, energy, and soul.
This midpoint status is underlined in John’s introduction in Constantine, when he’s called in to perform an exorcism on a girl (Johanna Trias) who’s been crawling on the ceiling and spitting obscenities at her god-fearing mother. John arrives at their Los Angeles apartment looking surly and weary (he’s seen this before). He straddles the child and whispers demon-be-gone commands in her ear as she contorts and spazzes. For a few minutes, they wrestle and kick, until the demon presses up against her chest and eventually makes its way loose, emerging in a rush and crashing out the window, leaving John looking like he’s in something like a post-coital daze, sucking on his cigarette as he makes his way back to the taxi that brought him, driven by eager sidekick Chas (Shia LaBeouf).
Tired, again, John still can’t rest. Or, as he puts it, “That exorcism wasn’t right.” Indeed, he noted ion the apartment a drawing of the Spear of Destiny (stuck in Christ’s side at the Crucifixion), suggesting that the girl/demon had her/its own vision of a future. It also turns out that this manifestation is only part of a recent trend of wickedness pushing its way to earth, enabled by the discovery of that Spear of Destiny, reportedly passed on through other nasty sorts over the years, and until this film, apparently, buried in a Nazi flag in Mexico. Today’s discoverer is a Mexican “scavenger” (Jesse Ramirez) who, once possessed of the Spear, turns spastic and brutish. After ravaging his immediate environs, the scavenger makes his way across the U.S. border (essentially, the worst nightmare version of an “illegal alien”), mindlessly determined to make contact with the next link in an apocalyptic chain. This would be detective Isabel Dodson (Rachel Weisz). Her part in the scheme has to do with her dead, psychic twin sister Angela (also played by Weisz) and though she doesn’t understand the dimensions of what she’s dealing with, Isabel seeks John’s help. This owing to the helpful clue left by her sister: officially a suicide, she jumped off the roof of the insane asylum where she’d been committed, turning just before her leap to look directly at the conveniently located rooftop surveillance camera to whisper Constantine’s name.
Whether or not this whisper is Isabel’s own delusion (as she’s watching the tape, seeking some explanation of her loss), John takes it up as a cause. Reluctantly, of course. His investigation leads to a series of encounters with other in-betweeners, other-realmy figures who walk the earth and make trouble — Satan’s minion, the half-human Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale); God’s emissary, the half-human Gabriel (Tilda Swinton); the alcoholic Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince); and the cagey former faith healer and witch doctor, currently deal-making medium between worlds, Midnite (Djimon Hounsou, again playing something of the Magical Negro, helping John to achieve his eventually noble end). None of these folks trusts John, but all respect (even envy, perversely) his gift which is also, yes, a curse.
While the humans (John, Midnite, Hennessy) variously resent the deity-imposed dilemma of fate and free will, as well as all the work they have to do for even a chance at eternal salvation, the two half-breeds have their own grudges to cultivate. Gung-ho to do Satan’s work, Balthasar is a jaunty, even dapper sort (his appearances on earth tend to involve whisking ravaged souls off to hellfire and damnation), but Gabriel is all doomy and profound concerning the “detente” that assigns demons and angels to separate realms, with everyone else scrambling for position. John has his own take on this situation: “God and the devil made a wager, a kind of standing bet for the souls of all mankind,” and Midnite, for his part, warns John to just back the heck off, not to disturb the “balance.”
Noting that John is “trying to buy his way into heaven” by sending damned souls to their rightful place, Gabriel advises him of his own unsaved condition: “You’re going to hell because of the life you took, you’re fucked.” Undeterred by such dire observation or really, any threats against him, John persists in his commitment to Isabel (who isn’t believable for a minute as a detective, even cocking her gun and facing down wraithy demons on the dark sidewalk). As he makes his way in and out of hell (apparently a routine visit for him, and imagined here as a digitally fiery set with wrecked cars and demons who look like charred carcasses), John also appears to Satan as the soul he most wants to burn forever, payback for repeatedly messing up his plans to infiltrate the human population with embodied evils.
The inevitable showdown brings together the disparate pieces of this puzzle, including Satan (whose late appearance comes in the form of the perfectly cast, ghastly pale Peter Stormare), and threatens that precious balance outrageously. Constantine is uneven, the rhythms and effects reeling from decent to silly, but it’s not without its oddly compelling bits. Without Hellboy’s thick skin, the Dark Knight’s gadgety ingenuity, or Spidey’s romantic energy, John is burdened by physical pains and moral vulnerabilities as well as his looming spiritual morass. Doubting his mission and his faith even as he’s consumed by them, he is an achingly topical comic book/movie hero. His ambiguity makes sense in a world where certainty — whether voiced by Osama bin Laden or the U.S. president — is plain scary.