At the L.A. press junket for action-horror extravaganza Constantine, the excitement over Keanu Reeves’ press conference overshadowed a more interesting development: the metamorphosis of Gavin Rossdale—lead singer of the rock band Bush—from glamorous rock star to Hollywood actor. Rossdale’s breakthrough role? He’s Balthazar, an agent of Satan, sent from Hell to make things miserable for John Constantine, the film’s chain-smoking exorcist hero. Rossdale (pictured top right) effectively exudes menace and malevolence in the role.
The journalists in attendance asked a few pointed questions, especially considering the Catholic background of Rossdale’s wife—rock diva Gwen Stefani. How did Stefani react to Rossdale’s performance as an emissary of Satan?
“She was happy I got the job, really. It’s my mother-in-law. She’s a very good Catholic, and I need to prepare her [for this film]. I’m mainly concerned about some of Gabriel’s language. She doesn’t like cuss words, and for the angel Gabriel to use the vernacular … I might just cough at that point. I’m working on a real hearty cough.”
How easy was it for a rock god to turn into a demon? “My strategy was to imagine a person without compunction, without feeling, without consideration—someone who enjoyed other people’s pain. Like most people, I like to be cognizant of other people. I’m aware that actions have consequences. I thought the most important quality for Balthazar … was his complete disregard for other people, and this coldness.” Which prompted one of the reporters quickly to quip, “So you went into it as a rock critic?”
Rossdale gives one of Constantine’s most memorable performances, but the film turns out to be far more about jolting the audience with demon-busting scares than it is about the traditional Christian cosmology in which it’s set.
Director Francis Lawrence went with the name Constantine instead of Hellblazer—the title of the comic-book source material—because he didn’t want it to be confused with the Hellraiser franchise. Nevertheless, plenty of hell is raised onscreen. A talisman with the power to destroy the world overcomes a feeble human being and transforms him into the instigator of the Apocalypse. Demons, usually confined to possessing people from within, start busting through heads, necks and wombs, and stepping into the real world. The only one who can stop them is a cynical exorcist who’s trying to earn his way into heaven by putting the Holy Smackdown on hellspawn.
Looks like Keanu’s got himself another hyperviolent franchise. John Constantine is a much more interesting character than The Matrix’s Neo. He’s rough-edged and temperamental, cursed with terminal lung cancer. He’s got a grudge against God, but he recklessly applies himself to serving the good side anyway, simply because he’s been to hell and back already, and he wants to keep things in “balance.”
In this episode, he assists a beautiful psychic (Rachel Weisz) distraught over the murder of her twin sister. Slowly, he awakens her to the reality that the “murder” involved supernatural villains with bad teeth. Together, they strive to discern how the crime is connected to the freaky breaches in contract between heaven and hell.
They have strange help. The angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, reveling in another androgynous role) is less than cherubic in his/her methods. Midnite (Djimon Hounsou) runs a nightclub for the damned, where he’s willing to engage in shady dealings with both sides of the cosmic conflict. Chas (Shia LeBoef) is Constantine’s apprentice, a young punk anxious to “get off the bench” and get into the spiritual-combat game.
But these “assistants” are little help against forces as hellishly hilarious as Lucifer (played with giddy enthusiasm by Fargo’s Peter Stromare). By the time he shows up for a campy debate with our sneering hero, the storytellers have become contortionists, bending the traditional religious cosmology as far as they can to indulge whatever grotesque, hellish visions the screen will accommodate, all with a frenzied enthusiasm that betrays little or no interest in the actual struggle of good versus evil. In between their CGI visions of demons, possession, burning flesh, near-drownings, electrocutions and wrist-slashings, they find enough room to exhibit Biblical ignorance: from the “Spear of Destiny” which the Roman soldier used to kill Christ (Huh? The spear killed him?), to an insistence that Catholicism consigns any suicide irretrievably to hell, to quotes from the 17th act of Corinithians. (Act?).
The hero’s appeal is in his arrogant irreverence and recklessness; the story makes as big a deal of his preoccupation with cigarettes as it does with his defiance of God. The angelic forces of good are prone to meddling in darkness. And the Almighty? He’s remote and silent. Keanu Reeves underlined just how deep the film’s investment in theology really is, when he jokingly quipped to reporters: “The Man Upstairs knows—just like Santa Claus—if you’re telling a lie or if you’re really nice. He knows.”
Constantine claims to be about good and evil, but decides evil is just too cool to resist, and its only acknowledgment of real “good” comes in the obligatory resolution, an awkward last-minute lurch in the right direction. It’s telling that the famous line from The Exorcist is Max Von Sydow’s riveting exhortation “The power of Christ compels you!” while the overriding tone of Constantine is something along the lines of Keanu’s signature “Whoa.”