Midway through 1999’s apocalyptic flop End of Days, the Devil (played by Gabriel Byrne) asks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tragedy-stricken hero cop how—in the face of ceaseless human misery—a man can continue to pledge allegiance to God. Beelzebub’s point, in a nutshell, is that if God orchestrates such endless suffering in any way, he’s no different from Satan, and that if He conversely takes a more hands-off, neglectful approach to managing humanity’s unhappiness, then he’s also a bastard. That the dunderheaded film refused to further investigate such a vexing spiritual-philosophical issue in favor of bloated action and one supremely ludicrous act of Christ-like sacrifice was unsurprising. But the succinct, intriguing scene itself remained a heartening sign that, despite their film’s standing as a silly supernatural adventure, the filmmakers’ interest in religion extended just slightly beyond the overriding idea that the devil would be the ultimate kick-ass villain for Schwarzenegger to vanquish.
The same cannot be said about Francis Lawrence’s Constantine (based on DC Comics’s acclaimed “Hellblazer” series), which treads similar holy ground but finds it much too taxing to confront Christianity in ways more profound than giving its hero a crucifix-shaped gold shotgun. A hard-bitten, chain-smoking, cancer-infected loner who combats the Devil’s earthbound minions, John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a man damned to hell for attempting suicide as a teen and now desperate to buy his way back into heaven one dead demon at a time. He’s a superhuman noir-ish detective governed by hopelessness and selfishness, and as portrayed by Reeves, who’s too calm and vacant to convey believable jaded fatalism and resentment, he’s also something of a smirking, self-absorbed prick serving purgatorial penance for past transgressions.
According to Lawrence’s thriller, God and the Devil abide by a truce that allows them to subtly interfere with, but not directly meddle in, humanity’s affairs, and Constantine spends his time killing off minor demons who pose no threat to this greater social order (even if their CGI mediocrity is a minor affront to special effects-loving cinephiles). Yet after becoming involved with an alluring (and tellingly named) cop named Angela (Rachel Weisz) who’s investigating the baffling suicide of her twin sister, Constantine discovers an insidious plot by Satan’s son to use the Spear of Destiny (still containing Christ’s blood after all these years) to break the peace agreement and conquer the world.
Constantine, disgusted by His lack of mercy, tells Angela, “God’s a kid with an ant farm, lady. He’s not planning anything,” but the film’s view of divinity remains staunchly stuck in the “God works in mysterious ways” mode, pretending to offer a caustically cynical view of faith while in actuality just resorting to tired clichés about good and evil, sacrifice and redemption. This unoriginality is complemented by almost every facet of Constantine, which is so blatantly indebted to The Matrix—from Reeves’s participation as a savior decked out in stylish black and Djimon Hounsou’s Morphius-like Midnite to the film’s blue-green pallor and overriding vision of a fantastical hidden reality lurking behind our mundane everyday one—that the Wachowskis should immediately demand residuals.
Lawrence is a skilled copycat (and that rare former music-video director not infatuated with eye-searing editing), and his adeptness at creating a mood of otherworldly unease helps make up for his story’s familiarity. However, his employment of classic religious and political iconography—images of the Stars and Stripes and the Statue of Liberty on Balthazar’s TV seem to link American capitalism or foreign policy to demonic world domination—is about as subtle (but far less compelling than) the spicy performances of Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare. As half-breed seraph Gabriel and Lucifer (respectively), the two conspire to turn the ludicrous finale into a competition for Lord Of All That Is Campy and, when juxtaposed with the monotonous Constantine, also wind up reaffirming one’s sneaking suspicion that, for all its flaws, Hades might be the more entertaining final destination.