Justice League Dark sounds kind of cool, I don’t know. Unlike any of those other DC movies, it has a for-real talented director with things like a track-record scheduled to direct it all of the sudden. Let’s look at the somewhat sketchy cinematic history of characters in that particular DC Comics franchise.
Perhaps emboldened by the success of The Matrix sequels, Constantine is a slightly freaky portmanteau of the expected, exhausted post-Matrix spiritual solemnity (read: Jesus allegory) and a more enticing brand of carnival food amusement. The balance, somewhat lugubrious faux-meditation on fate and destiny and who cares, on one hand, and the spark of a film limned with B-movie playthings on the other, is ultimately too mangled by the former for the film to appropriately circle around adjectives like “fun” or “inspired”. But, hey, at least it’s more willing to doodle in the margins than either of The Matrix sequels. And, sometimes, even their predecessor.
But those margins themselves are old-hat. John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a spiritual detective, kind of. He’s less an envoy to hell than a watcher, an avenger dedicated to the preservation of a certain unquestioned line between various realms. Until, that is, someone is content to question it, and Constantine bursts into his drowsy, sleepy variant of action. Why he serves his position is where the film slathers itself in an existential funk that is resolutely unearned, turning all the jagged visual edges that often fascinate (on the sidelines of the film) into a pouty meditation on religious conviction that pretends to (oh, how it pretends to) reshuffle religious idioms but mostly ensconces itself neatly in age-old ideas about penitence and conviction to supernatural forces.
You see, Reeves’ character isn’t in it for the fun, or the (cross)-gun, but to earn his keep with god after attempting suicide in his youth. And the film’s dour, nebulous commitment to exploring Constantine’s fatalistic attitude is TV dinner thematizing at its most petrified, microwaving all the glimmers of hope in the film’s vaguely raucous attitude and style until they feel like a perdition of over-heated, under-cooked drama sweating to mean something and coming up woefully embarrassing for the fact.
Francis Lawrence’s debut film (one that was commercially successful enough to part the sea toward cozy jobs heading up I Am Legend and the final three Hunger Games movies) has eyes for film noir. And Lawrence, for his part, takes full advantage of the hope that he can have a little fun tweaking the film into slight weirdness knowing that audiences would jump at the opportunity to see it simply based on Reeves’ casting. His visual accoutrements are not only amusing but vaguely bedeviled, charming in the neo-baroque way that inspires askew camera angles and a fierce, cock-eyed compositional mixing of neon and devilish hues. A middle-ground between Heaven and Hell dusts off some giallo-inflected hues, and the intermittent battles are refreshingly punchy, in-and-out affairs that invoke the main character’s obvious disinterest in amusing himself during the action.
However, Reeves himself is in full-on aimless drifter mode, only seldom actualizing the cynical, rakish asshole vibe the character desperately beckons for. With him in the lead, the film struggles like a hell imp trying to punch a hole of hellish, heretical glee through to the dour and dismal post-Fincher LA vibe that overcasts the film in a glum air of non-comedy. The result is a film that fails to take advantage of the obviously prickly dry comedy inherent to the silliness of the situation found in the original British comic book (a text which lets its dry-wit British flag fly). Reeves, and the too-gloomy vibe of the dialogue, stimulate a film with less than full-throated commitment to stimulation.
Occasionally, though, the movie refuses to play God’s minion anymore and introduces a wry swivel, like the wonderfully nonchalant, absurdist detail that hell is accessed through some nebulous combination of cat and puddle. Or Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare’s mordant performances as Gabriel and Lucifer, respectively, both of whom treat themselves to humanity as a gambit or a plaything, take their pick. Would that the film had raised its glass to them unanimously. Mostly, Constantine’s sentence is ours, and it mostly consists of your routine brooding interspersed with an exorcism or two to while away the time. Ultimately, Constantine is a mish-mash of stoic, post-Matrix disaffection and undercurrents of wily weirdness just pricking the film, daring to be unleashed, but the enormity of the former is too much for the sly discontent of the later to handle.