Big fun spiritual romp
Francis Lawrence
Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz
The Setup: 
Spiritual detective guy does good deeds to try to buy his way into heaven.

I found this film to be a total hoot. Yes it’s kind of cheesy and overdone, but whatever. It creates a world that is fairly fully imagined and intriguing, peopled with interesting characters with boldly-sketched motivations. This film retains its comic book feel in the best way, like Spider-Man 2 did… big, bold characters doing big, bold things in big, bold setting with big stakes. It is just deep enough to interest but not so deep as to require real concentration. It’s a comic book.

[I should mention that I've never read the Hellblazer comics this is based on, so I'm not bitter about how poorly it adapted the source material.]

A legitimate question is whether almost all movies should be sacrificing depth, mood, tone, composition, etc. in order to duplicate this comic book tone, as more and more movies increasingly are, but on this film’s terms it is what it is and succeeds within those limits fairly well.

I was quite surprised to find Keanu’s quest to buy his way back into heaven fairly compelling. I had read about it with jaded skepticism before seeing it, but on screen it kind of works, and offers a [comic-book level] depth to his angry attitude toward life and his desperate seeking of redemption. It also occurred to me why Keanu succeeds in roles like this: he has an ability to sell even the most inane dialogue. If a line is just so flat-out stupid, he can add a phrasing that sells the illusion that he’s just being ironic. I guess that’s a marketable skill.

Rachel Weisz doesn’t fare quite so well, in my opinion. She’s fine, she’s even good, it’s just that you can kind of see when she’s pulling out the “acting,” and when she’s just on autopilot. Some of her big “acting” scenes occur when she’s plucking hairs off the forehead of her dead sister, which serves both as a literary device to deliver “oh, I’m so emotionally raw right now I’m not thinking straight, look at me I’m acting as though some part of her were still alive, because, audience, we were so very close” emotional exposition, and also to show off the special effect that allows her to pick hairs off her own face [she plays both sisters]. It should be said that her autopilot is quite competent, it’s just that her style of delivering big on selected scenes contrasts with Keanu’s style of low-key consistency throughout.

I noted how the supposed forward-looking, dubious morality on the surface distracts attention from a lot of the very conventional morals delivered by the film, but perhaps this is just part of reinforcing the Catholic world it takes place in. The devil’s henchman Balthazar [Gavin Rossdale] is played as a mincing fag who theatrically smells his intended [male] victim and comments on how he will taste, when not glaring at men with sexual pleasure as he flares his nostrils. Later Satan himself runs his bare foot suggestively up Keanu’s inner thigh. The film never comes out and says “these people are gay,” but I think these images and actions function as code, understood on some level by every member of the audience, so that it never HAS to come out and say it. The message delivered is the old equation of homosexuality with evil. I am not outraged by this, just pointing it out. In this case I think the film’s implicit demonizing [ho ho] of homosexuality is used to reinforce the Catholic mythology the rest of the story depends on.

Another big ol’ moment of conventional religious/political public messaging comes near the end, when Tilda Swinton as Gabriel is describing what’ll happen after heaven and hell wage war on Earth: It’ll be tough, but those who survive will go to heaven. In other words: life sucks, sure, but just go on toiling away in the cube farm and yearning for ever-newer products, dear citizens, because your reward is in the afterlife.

Despite all this moralizing, they still can’t manage to make heaven look like anything but a total waste of time. Here we get a brief image of those kind of “utopian” towers like Padme has on whatever that idiotic planet she’s on in Star Wars Episode One is, rising out of some fluffy clouds. WHAT a fucking bore! What are you supposed to do there? Just walk around in the clouds marveling at the crappy international architecture? It’s a strange challenge in movies to show heaven, because most of the things people enjoy in life that can be compellingly shown on screen tend to be a bit more worldly. This cinematic phenomenon is similar to the problem faced by movies in which a character can experience anything they can imagine and all they want to do is relive that big game or get front-row tickets to Elton John rather than have a wild orgy with nubile identical quintuplets or something that a real person might want.

This film shows the mark of Buffy’s influence in its depiction of a world where one can be so casual, and react with humor, to getting attacked by a demon on the street. It follows blockbuster conventions that dictate that the mood must be goosed every five minutes with a freaky special effect or a full-on climax, but whatever. Within the frame of what it is, it works well. It kept me thoroughly entertained, when it ended it evaporated in my mind like cotton candy, and now I’ll never have to see it ever again.

August 2005:
Well, I shouldn't have said that, because I did end up watching this movie again. Suffice to say, if you do watch it, and you're over the age of 14, once is more than enough. Much more apparent upon second viewing was how the movie canNOT go five minutes without doing something to wake its audience up. And every one of those things are cranked up to ELEVEN. The movie's tone if so breathless-everything is just SO urgent-that you end up dismissing it all. The same thought kept occurring to me-in 20 years, people will watch this movie the same way we do Xanadu or any classic B-movie now. I mean, once you have scenes in which a woman is menaced by a bunch of ringing phones, or two shards of shattered faces [you'll know it when you see it] have a conversation, you're entering B-movie land. I am pleased to know that a rich future of new hootworthy bad movies await future generations.

What else? Poor Keanu's voice is so strange-is he trying to do some kind of John Wayne impersonation? And poor Rachel Weisz is giving so much to her big Oscar speeches. someone should tell the poor bit that she's in a shitty blockbuster that isn't working nearly as hard as she is. The movie is also needlessly complicated and endlessly protracted, which became VERY apparent as it dragged through its second hour. My friend had the best line, after I had commented on how very hard-hitting everything was supposed to be. He responded "This movie is not only hard hitting, it is also long-lasting."

Should you watch it: 

Why not? You’ve wasted your time in less entertaining ways.


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