Constantine (2005): Remembering a Movie I’d Rather Forget

2013 UPDATE:  This just in — the DC comic book character Constantine is about to make a comeback.

Deadline reports:

Warner Bros. TV and DC Comics are on a roll this development season with a third high-profile project.Constantine, a drama based on the characters in DC Comics’ John Constantine stories, has sold to NBC with penalty. It is written/executive produced by The Mentalist executive producer Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer, the go-to writer for Warner Bros.’ feature DC adaptations. Constantine centers on John Constantine, an enigmatic and irreverent con man-turned-reluctant supernatural detective who is thrust into the role of defending us against dark forces from beyond.

Reason to rejoice? Hardly.

My experience with the Constantine phenomenon was a bitter one. Some of you who were already reading my reviews back in 2005 may remember it. 

Somehow, studios convinced a Christian media company to market the big-budget fantasy movie Constantine to Christian audiences as if it was going to be some kind of substantially theological event. Instead, the movie turned out to be an event that reveled in distortions of Christian theology, iconography, terminology, ideals, and traditions. Even as it made money of gullible Christian audiences (there were even discussion guides for churches), it was laughing all the way to the bank by mocking Christianity and demonstrating a total lack of understanding.

I was reluctant to give the film any attention at all. But somebody had to blow the whistle.

Here’s a souvenir of that experience… my original review of Constantine. It was published in the February 2005 print edition of Christianity Today and on their website. I also participated in interviews with the cast and the director. You can read excerpts from those conversations.

Consider this proof that no amount of sweet-talking, gifts from the studio, expensive accommodations, or attempts to “Christianize” an abomination will persuade me to give something a good review.

The Original CT Review of Constantine

You’d be hard-pressed to find an adventure film that uses as much Christian terminology and symbolism as Constantine. You’d have a tougher time finding one that’s makes a bigger mess of it.

Director Francis Lawrence’s stylish, adrenaline-fueled adaptation of the comic book Hellblazer will probably win some enthusiastic fans among Christian moviegoers keen on pop culture. After all, this hero seeks redemption, fights Satan, entertains angels, and blasts demons with weapons that bear the mark of the Cross (from the blessed brass knuckles to a golden crucifix-Tommy gun). But if you’re looking for profound spiritual exploration, this isn’t your movie. Nor is it a fun hodgepodge of magical fairy tales like Harry Potter. It’s an R-rated immersion in the vocabulary of demon possession and the occult. Compared with Constantine, The Exorcist seems like an after-school special.

John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a suit-and-tie exorcist and a chain smoker. He’s been to hell and back—literally. Committing suicide, he plunged himself into Satan’s clutches, only to be resuscitated back to the land of the living. Why suicide? John grew up with the “gift” of seeing spiritual warfare around him: screaming demons, angels with enormous wings, and “half-breeds” — agents clad in human flesh who act as influence peddlers serving to nudge people either heavenward or to the abyss. You’d think his taste of brimstone would have convinced him to repent. But no — John’s too proud, too resentful. Instead he’ll try to earn salvation as a volunteer demon hunter on the streets of Los Angeles.

It’s a bad time to be a soldier in the spirit wars. In a sequence that recalls The Return of the King‘s prologue, a talisman called the Spear of Destiny corrupts and transforms the man who discovers it. This menacing villain marches toward L.A., desolation in his wake, preparing to unleash a new devil that will upset “the balance” in the struggle of heaven versus hell.

When John discovers that demons are breaking the rules of engagement and coming through into the physical world, his colleagues don’t believe him: “We’re finger puppets to them, not doorways.” But John knows better. He sets out on a quest with three purposes: to help a police investigator (Rachel Weisz as Angela Dodson) unravel the mystery of her sister’s murder; to avert the coming apocalypse; and to stop the spread of his terminal lung cancer. (In The Matrix, Keanu knew kung fu. Here, he has coughing fits.)

John gets help from a cocky apprentice named Chas (Shia LeBeouf from Holes) who wants to “get off the bench” and into the game of spiritual warfare; an alcoholic priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who scans spiritual wavelengths for psychic murmurings; and a relic collector (Max Baker) who lives in a bowling alley. But other colleagues confuse matters. A nightclub manager called Midnite (Djimon Hounsou) claims to be neutral, but he happily gives hell-spawn a place to party. Gabriel, an androgynous, “half-breed” angel (Tilda Swinton), is less than angelic.

And yet Gabriel alone has some grasp of the exorcist’s theological blind spots. He (she?) reminds John that salvation cannot be earned through good works. When John asks what God expects, Gabriel replies, “The usual. Self-sacrifice. Belief.” John knows the value of repentance; he lectures a demon (rock star Gavin Rossdale) on the subject. But his grudge against the Almighty is too strong. “God’s just a child with an anthill,” he declares. “He has no plan.”

Constantine touches on many things that Christians hold to be true: the battle between forces seeking to save or to ruin souls, the reality of demonic possession, the responsibility that comes with God-given gifts. Lawrence and his screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello do not identify themselves as particularly religious (although Cappello says he has a Lutheran background). They score some points for trying. But they’d have avoided embarrassing errors if they’d consulted with some Bible readers.

First Corinthians has chapters, not “acts.”

Jesus died as a result of crucifixion, not because a Roman soldier thrust a spear into his side.

A Catholic could have told them that Roman Catholicism does not consign suicide victims to eternity in hell.

But the film’s preoccupation with jarring violence and distortions of Christian symbolism are truly troubling.

A character undergoes a reverse baptism, awakening to horror. Demons try shoving their way through one woman’s throat and another woman’s womb. The Cross is everywhere, but the Savior who died on it goes unmentioned. Constantine‘s premise makes Jesus’ existence impossible — God and Satan have apparently made a bargain not to intervene on the plane of human existence, using only the power of suggestion instead.

If this movie wants to make claims about the power of the cross, well then… what was Christ, if not God’s most significant intervention into human history?

This question is easily forgotten in the onslaught of frenzied, CGI-generated apocalyptic imagery. Horror movie buffs will enthusiastically absorb the relentless shocks, the showdowns, and the expletive-laced ultimatums. Lawrence’s approach to holding our attention consists of frequent, hushed pauses, followed by explosive assaults to our senses. The camera is at the receiving end of gunfire, punches, blowtorch blasts, and falling bodies. Every few minutes, someone smashes through a mirror, a window, a wall, or a watery surface. One hero half-drowns another. Holy water acts like acid, burning human flesh off demons in disguise. The relentless violence is wearying. By the time Peter Stormare appears in the last act playing the part of Lucifer (Constantine calls him “Lu”), the story has become so convoluted and ridiculous that we can’t take the movie seriously anymore. (Judging from his campy, over-the-top performance, neither can Stormare.)

Fortunately, the storytellers know enough to recognize the need for a Christ figure, even if all they have available is an arrogant, resentful con man with the initials “J.C.” But the conclusion would have been more resonant if we’d learned not just the wages of sin, but the blessings of obedience. It’s a misleading idea that the film presents — good and evil in “balance.” Even so, we get gobs of hell and only a glimmer of heaven.

Constantine is likely to blockbust its way to some sequels. Christian moviegoers who see it might enrich post-viewing discussions by pointing out what Scripture actually says about spiritual warfare and the “full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-18). They might point to a God who is not remote, not indifferent, but aggressively benevolent. He never signed a cosmic détente with Satan. Instead, he defeated him by taking the sting from death through the sacrifice and resurrection of an obedient, willing hero.

What Other Critics Are Saying: Excerpts from Christianity Today’s Film Forum

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is troubled by Constantine‘s glorification of evil. “The contrast between the masculine demons and the androgynous Gabriel subtly reinforces the film’s overall depiction of the forces of darkness as more forceful and virile than the forces of light.” He describes the movie as “a relentless action movie with more ideas than both Matrix sequels put together.”

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) calls it “a slick, tightly written, but grotesque and deceptive horror flick. What kind of God makes a wager with the devil for human souls? Certainly, a weaker, less caring God than the one presented in the Bible.”

“There’s been a lot of talk about this film representing good and evil,” says Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). “What I [saw] was a bizarre portrayal of demonic and the occult, with virtually no representation of God or anything good. Despite a massive marketing campaign to the Christian media … Constantine offers no spiritual or moral value. Unfortunately, it has little cinematic value, either. It’s convoluted, dark and disingenuous. It’s also extremely violent—gratuitously so. Moreover, by attempting to make evil so fascinating, it may tempt many to dabble in the occult.”

Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says, “Constantine often plays like eschatology-as-theme-park-ride. And when it’s all said and done, you may find yourself tired of the—ahem—constantinanity.”

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Dennis McDonald

    My own review is much more positive: http://www.ddmcd.com/movies/constantine.html

    I was not as offended as others — I figure my faith is strong enough to weather such slings and arrows and, besides, I thought the satire of religious symbolism was quite clever in parts. Freedom of speech and all that, you know.

    I have a hard time believeing that anyone would have thought the movie could have been taken seriously or used in any kind of religious program.

  • Christopher Williams

    I remember the marketing as being part of Hollywood’s attempt to try and cash-in on “The Passion of the Christ’s” success. I convinced a normally action/horror-averse fan to see it with me by convincing her I’d heard it was an action movie that took theology seriously. Oddly, the only thing I remember about the movie itself is that Constantine lived above a bowling alley and the movie bored he heck out of me. I’d blocked from my mind that Rachel Weisz and Tilda Swinton were in here. Now we’ll get to relive the joy every week!

    Relate, sort of, in terms of mainstream horror that DOES take faith a tad more seriously — did you see The Conjuring?


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