Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). This time ‘round the Rack, we’ll be checking out Warner Bros.’ first dip into the Vertigo pool (unless you count the Swamp Thing films) with the 2005 Keanu Reeves vehicle, Constantine!
CONTENT WARNING: This article will include pervasive theological material and frank discussion of mental illness, self-harm, and suicide. Reader discretion is advised.
Is it more important for a movie to be a faithful adaptation of a comic, or to be a good movie in its own right?
And for that matter: what does being a “faithful adaptation” even MEAN?
Comic book adaptations have been grappling with these questions since the earliest days of filmmakers treating the subject matter seriously. The 1977 Incredible Hulk TV series changed Dr. Banner’s name from Bruce to David, dramatically de-powered the Green Goliath himself, and featured the hero running from a newspaper reporter rather than the military. A year later, Superman: The Movie depicted Lex Luthor as a preening Bond villain with dopey henchmen rather than as a solo mad scientist. And once Hollywood started churning these things out like clockwork, recurring complaints among fans usually revolved around aesthetic changes: the look of the costumes (“Why CAN’T the X-Men wear yellow spandex?”), the physical appearance of the actors (“He’s too TALL to play Wolverine!”, “He’s too SHORT to play Batman!”), and the exclusion of specific plot devices/narrative conceits (such as how some people think Watchmen’s cardinal sin was leaving out the giant space squid at the end).1 Now, with the runaway popularity of the MCU—a film franchise created by the publisher ITSELF, and faithful to the source material in… almost every way2—one has to wonder: how much of that success is because they stuck to the visuals and tone of the comics? And how much can you change without breaking the story?
… So let’s look at 2005’s Constantine.
John Constantine was created in 1985 by Alan Moore3, Stephen Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben in issue #37 of Saga of the Swamp Thing. He was just a supporting character, to begin with—a cigarette-smoking, blue-collar sorcerer and all-around bastard, who helped Swamp Thing to discover the true limits of his powers (and whom the artists modeled after the pop musician and Police frontman, Sting). The character proved to be a hit, so in 1988 DC went ahead and launched a solo series for him: John Constantine, Hellblazer, a supernatural-horror detective series with noir elements and adult themes that would soon get folded into DC’s mature-reader Vertigo imprint (along with Saga of the Swamp Thing).
In the Vertigo fold, Constantine flourished as a morally-ambiguous anti-hero: the wily, manipulative con man who often uses others to stay one step ahead of destruction, yet who harbors a deep sense of guilt and self-loathing that pushes him to taking self-destructive risks. The series was a big hit, and went on to become Vertigo’s longest-running monthly title—lasting from its 1988 beginnings to the dissolution of the imprint in 2013.4 John Constantine’s success also helped popularize the supernatural detective genre, leading to the eventual mainstreaming of shows such as The Dresden Files and Supernatural (in which recurring character Castiel’s wardrobe was deliberately designed to resemble Constantine).
So yeah: he may not be Batman, but this is a character with a pretty big pop cultural footprint, and a VERY dedicated fan base.
And Hollywood did take notice! Producer Lauren Shuler Donner started developing a feature-film adaptation of the Hellblazer comics as far back as 1997, initially courting music-video director Paul Hunter to helm the film, then moving on to Tarsem Singh (director of The Cell and, most recently, the mediocre Ryan Reynolds sci-fi thriller Self/Less). Singh came close to actually shooting the film in 2002—with (of all goddamn people) NICOLAS CAGE in the title role5—but instead Singh dropped out of the project at the very last minute (SO last minute, in fact, that the studio sued him for breach of contract). Eventually, Shuler Donner threw up her hands in exasperation and settled on Francis Lawrence, a commercial and music-video director, to helm the project as his feature-film debut.
Now, Lawrence would eventually prove to be a competent visual stylist, and would go on to a rewarding career of butchering Richard Matheson novels and churning out Hunger Games sequels with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation)… but to be clear, it was never his name that was going to sell this movie to audiences. No, that burden would fall onto the shoulders of the film’s ultimate leading man:
Reeves signed on to headline the newly-retitled Constantine (the name having been changed from Hellblazer to avoid confusion with the Hellraiser franchise6) in 2002, just prior to the release of the Matrix sequels. He wasn’t exactly the OBVIOUS choice to play the traditionally blond, British, world-weary sorcerer John Constantine, but he did have the star power necessary to get production rolling on the heretofore stagnant project.
Constantine was released in February of 2005, and it did… respectable business at the box office. On a budget somewhere between 70 and 100 million bucks, the film drew in $230.9 million worldwide—which is firmly in the green, sure, but it’s not exactly Matrix numbers. Critics were lukewarm on the film, as well; Roger Ebert even went so far as to place it on his list of “Most Hated” movies, and it currently sits at a tepid 46% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nevertheless, there were some rumblings about a sequel: Francis Lawrence suggested he’d like to do a “hard R rated” version of the material in 2011, and Keanu Reeves has stated on multiple occasions that he would be up for reprising the role of the occult detective—even as recently as December 2021. But nothing has yet materialized, and fans of the character have been… oh, let’s say dismissive of the possibility of a follow-up.
(It’s not as if the character has lain COMPLETELY fallow in the pop culture sphere, however. In 2014, NBC aired an hour-long occult detective drama titled Constantine, starring Matt Ryan as a very-blond, very-British version of the character whom fans LOVED. The show only lasted for a single season, but Ryan’s Constantine was eventually integrated into the CW’s Arrowverse shows, where he ended up a series regular on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow!7)
So what was it about the 2005 film that bugged fans so much? Was it just the black hair, the American accent? Would setting it in London have changed the underlying gestalt of the picture, even if the script were otherwise the same? Was Keanu Reeves genuinely that bad as the acerbic sorcerer? Or was it something deeper which turned them off… a philosophical change, which inverted the broader messaging of the work and turned it into something less controversial and more marketable?
Get ready for a painfully pedantic compare-and-contrast of the books to the movie as we journey into Hell to deconstruct this supernatural franchise non-starter. (SPOILER ALERT for the classic Hellblazer tale “Dangerous Habits” by Garth Ennis and Will Simpson, on which much of this movie is based.) One way or another, it’s time to see whether the purists had a point.
IN THIS ISSUE: It’s The Maltese Falcon meets The Exorcist meets Blade, without being quite as good as any of them.
So let’s get this out of the way up front: Keanu Reeves is actually pretty decent as John Constantine! He does a surprisingly good job of channeling the bitter, snarky energy of a jaded detective past his glory days, who’s survived years of battling supernatural evils only to find himself succumbing to the banality of lung cancer from pounding down cigarettes. There’s a charmingly familiar cynicism to the part—this character is a film noir protagonist to his very bones, fed up with the “hypocritical bullsh*t” of the supernatural world and its endless, seemingly arbitrary rules and demands. In fact, it’s this genre-archetype familiarity that’s probably his greatest weakness; this John doesn’t have his print counterpart’s uniquely punk-rock sensibilities, self-destructive flair, or audacious chutzpah. He’s basically a straight-outta-the-box film noir detective… less John Constantine and more Sam Spade.
It’s a refreshing change of pace for Reeves as an actor, sure, but it’s not quite on the mark.
The film itself is a neat little mystery-thriller dressed up in horror trappings. Constantine, a freelance exorcist and expert on all things occult, is approached by L.A. Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz, turning in an earnest performance that’s almost too good for this movie) after her psychic twin sister, Isabelle, seemingly commits suicide. But Angela’s case soon turns out to be wrapped up in a much bigger, more insidious conspiracy brewing in the literal and figurative underworlds of the City of Angels—a conspiracy which sees full-fledged demons emerging into our world, John’s associates mysteriously dying off one by one, and the discovery of a prophecy foretelling the ascendance of the Son of Satan and the end of the world.
Like The Matrix or Blade before it, Constantine spends much of its runtime explaining the specific mythology and machinations of its fantastical “world beneath the world” to a wide-eyed outsider (in this case, Detective Dodson). Unlike the comics, you see, Constantine constructs a rigid, clearly-delineated fantasy framework for its story: long ago, Heaven and Hell reached an agreement wherein it was decided that demons would stay in Hell, and angels in Heaven. But the two are still in competition to claim the souls of mankind, so they work to push people towards either salvation or damnation through the influence of “half-breeds”: human-looking agents on Earth who wield either angelic or demonic powers, and whose true forms can only be seen by people with psychic perception. This arrangement is called “the Balance” and is played as a political status quo, like a peace treaty: “the great détente of the original superpowers”.
But when a demon breaks the rules of the Balance, Constantine can “deport” them back to Hell by blowin’ ‘em up real good with one of his divine weapons.
… Oh, didn’t I mention? Constantine—like Blade before him—has a bunch of specialized supernatural weapons to show off, like his cross-shaped shotgun (which fires golden bullets made from melted-down crucifixes), ampules of holy water, “dragon’s breath” flamethrower, and (I sh*t you not) a set of brass knuckles with crosses engraved on each knuckle.
One of the big two divergences from the source material is what, exactly, is motivating John Constantine.
In the comic books, Constantine is described as an adrenaline junkie and a “weirdness magnet” for whom the pursuit of the occult was less a grand and noble calling than something he fell into as an adolescent for kicks. (Though he’s descended from a lineage of noted mages and warlocks, little Johnny Constantine still had to CHOOSE to pursue a magical life; his powers aren’t, like, inborn or anything.) As a young man, though, his first big foray into “heroism” ended in disaster: in an attempt to rid a little girl named Astra Logue of a demon she’d inadvertently summoned, he and his band mates8 raised a second demon to destroy the first… and the demon promptly went berserk, torturing its summoners and ultimately dragging the little girl down into Hell. It was the biggest turning point in Constantine’s life, saddling him with guilt and grief (enough to cause a nervous breakdown) and irrevocably damning his soul to Hell… but it’s not the reason why he does what he does. At his heart, Constantine is a con man, a manipulator, and a thrill-seeker; he spends half his time digging his own grave, and the other half trying to weasel his way out of it.
But MOVIE Constantine is a different story. Because this version of the character has the psychic ability to see “half-breeds” in their true form—and has since he was a child. The constant, traumatizing effect of seeing demonic entities living all around him lead Constantine’s parents to believe that he was mentally ill, and so they sent him into psychiatric care—where he received electroshock therapy, and presumably a lot more. Driven to desperation and despair, a teenage Constantine attempted suicide… and succeeded, officially dying for two minutes before being revived.
THIS is the moment that damns movie-Constantine’s soul to Hell: not a reckless and irresponsible act that costs a child her life, but a desperate and pitiful attempt BY a child to escape the nightmarish circumstances he’d been born into. Because according to “the rules”, suicides all go to Hell (the default religious views that the film works from are SUPER Catholic). So Constantine became a supernatural detective and a de-facto enforcer of the Balance in an effort to “buy [his] way into Heaven”; he’s a desperate man trying to curry favor with the powers-that-be by doing good deeds and playing hero. He’s jaded and cynical, yes, but only because he was put in an impossible position by circumstance—he didn’t ask for ANY of this.
That… is a pretty different-sounding character, right? So is it even still the same character?
John doesn’t operate alone, though. A gaggle of colorful allies and enemies crop up throughout the story—and just like in the comics, most of the ones Constantine would call “friends” end up VERY dead.
First and most prominent is John’s teenage sidekick-slash-cab-driver, Chas Kramer9. Chas is sort of an apprentice to John, though in practice he’s more of a gofer and indentured servant (though we’re never told, uh, WHY he’s stuck in the perpetual service of Constantine); John describes him as being “like Tonto or Robin”, and in the end he steps up and helps save the day at a key moment (before dying a violent death). It’s a pretty meaty role for a young up-and-coming actor, and the filmmakers wisely went with a promising young talent who would end up breaking through to stardom just a few years later, named… (*checks notes*)… SHIA LABEOUF?!?!? Oh, god damn it!!!10
On the other end of things is Papa Midnite, an enigmatic figure in the battle between Heaven and Hell—played by Djimon Hounsou in the very first of his many, many comic book movie roles11. Midnite is a former “witch doctor” (which seems like kind of an offensive term—his Wikipedia entry labels him a “vodun shaman”) who runs a bar that serves as neutral ground for half-angels and half-demons alike—swearing and “Oath of Neutrality” to take no sides as long as the Balance is maintained. Possibly the most principled character in the film, Midnite also fairly radiates style and class, despite appearing in… what, three scenes total?
And speaking of being glacially cool, did I mention that Tilda Swinton is in this as an androgynous half-angel named Gabriel who dresses like David Bowie and in general steals the movie whenever she’s on-screen? I mean, not to get ahead of myself here—because she makes a dramatic shift in character near the end of the movie—but Gabriel first shows up as a heavenly power that John turns to in desperation once he discovers that he’s dying of lung cancer. Decked out in a slick pin-striped suit, with ethereally-glowing eyes and occasionally-visible angel wings, she lays out the moral groundwork on the film (MUCH more on that later) and coolly, compassionately explains to John why he’s doomed to go to Hell—and rounding it out with a simple, soft-spoken “you’re f%$#ed” (the one use of the word in this PG-13 movie). For a character that only pops up in TWO scenes, she makes a hell of an impression (no pun intended).
… Hmmm. I feel like I’m forgetting someone. Isn’t there at least one other major character in this mov—?
—RIGHT! Angela! The central character of the entire mystery storyline! The heroine that the entire plot hinges around! Surely there’s something… interesting… to say about her… right?
Okay, perhaps I’m being unfair. Rachel Weisz does her level best to play this role with depth and nuance, and Angela does come laden with some interesting inner conflict about her role as a cop12 versus her faith as a Catholic. But functionally, Angela is an audience-surrogate figure: she’s the character everything has to be EXPLAINED to so that the audience can learn how the fictional world works… which means she spends most of the movie following John around and either asking questions or responding incredulously to new bits of information (“… they have Bibles in Hell?”). Now, amazingly, at one point she actually does take the wheel and gains some AGENCY in her own story: when she asks Constantine to restore the psychic abilities that she once shared with her sister, but blocked out. She helps him find one guy who’s part of the conspiracy they’re tracking down13… and then IMMEDIATELY gets kidnapped and becomes a prop for the rest of the damn movie (because of course, her getting her psychic powers back was part of the villains’ plot all along). Oy.14
Now we’re REALLY getting into SPOILER territory here—for the movie AND the comic. Because yes, we have to talk about the ending.
It’s revealed at the start of act three that Mammon, the son of the Devil, is planning to escape from Hell, supplant his father, and bring about the end of the world. To do this, he possesses Angela—who, thanks to Constantine, has reawakened the psychic abilities that make her susceptible to his influence—and needs to use the Spear of Destiny (the soldier’s spear that pierced the side of Jesus on the cross, killing him)15 to stab her, piercing the barrier between Earth and Hell and allowing him to cross over. Constantine and Chas show up and attempt to banish Mammon back down to Hell, but a powerful force kills Chas and then reveals itself to be… GABRIEL, the mastermind of the whole plot! Turns out she’s grown jealous of mankind’s favored relationship with God and determined to make humanity worthy of God’s love… by subjecting them to the horrors of Mammon’s rule. Constantine is completely outclassed and defenseless against Gabriel16, who flings him into an adjoining room as she prepares to gut Angela with the Spear.
With time running out, Constantine does the only thing he can: he slits his wrists, which causes him to cross over and brings time to a standstill (a mechanic the movie has established repeatedly). Then LUCIFER HIMSELF arrives to collect John’s soul personally, giggling like a demented schoolboy (more on him below). John tells “Lu” what’s happening with his son Mammon and the Spear, and so Lucifer walks over, rescues Angela, and burns the wings right off of Gabriel’s back. When Lucifer goes back and asks John what he wants in return17, though… rather than asking for an extension on his time on Earth, John asks for Isabelle (the dead twin sister, remember?) to be freed from Hell18 and allowed to go to Heaven. Lucifer merrily agrees, and then prepares to haul John off to the underworld like a sack of old potatoes…
… but John becomes too heavy to pull. Then suddenly, the room is AWASH with golden light, and John starts to float, up and away from the bewildered Devil, towards a shining city haloed by silvery clouds (and posed in a crucifix position, no less). John’s self-sacrifice has finally redeemed the one great stain on his soul; now he can finally go to Heaven!
Of course, Lucifer isn’t having any of THAT, and grabs John before he can pass on—literally ripping the cancer out of his lungs and healing his wounds so that John can “have a chance to prove that [his] soul truly belongs in Hell!” John wakes up alive and cancer-free. The world is saved, John gives the Spear of Destiny to Angela to hide, and he starts chewing nicotine gum rather than smoking. The end!
… Yeah, that isn’t even CLOSE to how the comic book ended.
The “Dangerous Habits” storyline that this movie is largely based on doesn’t have Mammon. Nor the Spear of Destiny. And Gabriel never goes mad, nor attempts to usher in the end of the world19. No, “Dangerous Habits” is entirely focused on John staring into the bleak inexorability of his forthcoming death and subsequent damnation… and trying to find a con clever enough to buy his way OUT of it. Like in the film, he initially tries seeking out divine intervention—specifically through Gabriel—but when that falls apart, in a fit of desperation, he hatches an insane plan to keep his soul out of the Devil’s clutches.
See, in the Hellblazer books, there isn’t just ONE Devil, but THREE—the First, Second, and Third of the Fallen. They rule Hell in equal portion, divvying up the underworld between them and maintaining a balance of power (if an uneasy one). So Constantine, whose soul is already consigned to the First of the Fallen, goes ahead and sells his soul to the Second and Third of the Fallen… and then he slits his wrists.
When all three Lords of Hell show up to drag John down to the abyss, he hits them with the bad news: according to “the rules”, they ALL have rightful claim on his soul… but only one can actually TAKE it. So they only have two options: either the three can go to war for Constantine’s soul, which will weaken all of them no matter who wins and leave Hell wide open to being conquered and subjugated by the forces of Heaven… OR, they have to keep Constantine alive, because the claim on his soul only takes effect once he passes away. Furious, all three agree to cure John’s cancer and to heal his body (though they’re sure to make it as painful as possible).
Constantine doesn’t overcome his selfish nature, and he isn’t redeemed—in fact, he’s THREE TIMES as damned at the end of the book as he was at the start. Instead, John finds a loophole that no one else was smart enough to spot, and he uses it to escape certain doom. Because the John Constantine of Hellblazer is deeply, deeply distrustful of systems—specifically, the systems of power and control that govern the supernatural world. John sees rules as tools of oppression; and in the Hellblazer world, the machinations of Heaven and Hell are just another system governed by seemingly arbitrary, unfeeling rules. So in the end, he USES those rules against those who are supposed to benefit from them, and not only wins his life back, but spits in the eyes of THREE Beelzebubs (Beelzebi?) and gets away with it scot-free. It’s an ending that sums up the arrogant, punk-rock, f%$#-the-establishment mindset of the comics.
And it’s pretty much exactly the opposite of the message of the movie.
Did you notice that the film’s John Constantine doesn’t have any weapons to battle half-angels? Notice how Garbiel is a completely unquestioned moral authority in the film until the moment she turns into a genocidal psychopath—and then she can only really be defeated when she loses the authority granted her by a higher power (“… looks like somebody doesn’t have your back anymore”)? Or did you catch how Constantine, a supposed cynic and rule breaker, never once questions the justness of the rule that says that suicides always go to Hell, no matter the circumstances that prompted them? (He CERTAINLY never questions whether Heaven and its assorted angels are justified in judging humankind in the FIRST place, as he does in the book.) No, instead this movie ends with Constantine finding an “out” for himself and Isabelle that plays by Heaven’s rules—sacrificing himself for her soul, and thereby entering God’s graces because he finally committed a selfless act. It’s a sweet sentiment when taken on its own, but when you consider the broader implications…
A QUICK ASIDE ABOUT THE NATURE OF GOD IN THE FILM CONSTANTINE:
So God, in the film, is essentially The System, get me? We never see God in person, and we have no sense of a consciousness guiding the events of the film outside of the machinations of His/Hers/Its that we see play out “by design”. So “God” is simply the unseen arbiter of the hopelessly convoluted system of rules and guidelines that govern the supernatural world. But my question is: why aren’t more people pissed off at God—a definitely real, individual, all-powerful being in the text of the film—about all of the horrible circumstances that His/Her/Its system creates?
Hell, you’d think John would be pretty pissed off at God Him/Her/Itself for giving him a psychic power so traumatizing that it convinced his parents he was insane and drove him to suicide—and then DAMNING HIM TO HELL for the actions he took which he was essentially forced into. But rather than, say, going on a vengeful quest to attack and dethrone God (or even just speaking ill of Him/Her/It at every available opportunity), John spends the whole movie desperately trying to get back into God’s good graces—ultimately begging for help at the end of the film. (Literally the worst thing Constantine says about the Big G is that “God’s a kid with an ant farm, lady.” Notice how this completely exonerates God for everything bad that happens in the world, even as it half-heartedly condemns the Lord for not doing enough good.)
Now, I know that—as a damned dirty atheist—the idea of a conceptual God maybe not being the pinnacle of fairness, benevolence, and good probably comes easier to me than to people with a background of religious faith. But the movie CHOSE this framework—chose to dress this story up as a pseudo-noir, and then explicitly made the forces of Heaven just as much a part of the “hypocritical bullsh*t” system as Hell and its minions. So it really shouldn’t be all that unexpected that an audience might question the power structure of the world, and by default question the big kahuna that orchestrated ALL of it… but not only does the movie not question its God’s judgment, it explicitly vilifies the one person who DOES.
After all, what is it that pushes Gabriel to madness and genocide? Questioning God’s judgment and the system as it is. Gabriel is jealous that God will forgive any human who repents, and finds this arrangement unfair (because it doesn’t exist for any other creatures in the universe). Now, that’s actually a really interesting motivation that suggests some kind of serious social inequalities in the cosmological hierarchy… but does the movie explore the possibility that maybe, just maybe, humans are privileged by a deity that treats others unjustly by comparison? NO! It just frames the angel who RAISED these questions as a psychotic, genocidal madwoman so that we can disregard all of her points off-hand!
(*sigh*)… I’m probably reading WAY too much into this.
Y’see, “Dangerous Habits” is essentially an individualist, borderline-anarchist tale of a man trapped by oppressive systems of control who finds an escape by playing the system against itself. But in contrast, Constantine is a neo-liberal fantasy about how authority and the systems it maintains are never at fault, and how individual bad actors are the cause of all dismay—so any systemic injustices must be remedied on a case-by-case basis, rather than through systemic changes. It’s not that it’s wrong for Heaven to condemn innocent people to Hell for trying to escape their own, uncontrollable circumstances; it’s that individuals need to play by the rules of this arguably-unjust system if they want to solve their own problems. And suicide is cheating, you see—no matter what your reasons were for DOING it. So unless you ALSO know someone who’s willing to trade his soul to Lucifer for yours, then you’d better not kill yourself, or you’ll have to suffer the horrifying-yet-apparently-morally-acceptable consequences. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.
It’s a movie that’s about how the seemingly-unjust status quo is just fine, actually. Don’t worry, the movie says: “He works His work in mysterious ways”. And when you think about it for more than five seconds, that REALLY sucks.
So bottom line: is Constantine a faithful adaptation of the Hellblazer comic books that inspired it?
… NO! No. Hell no. It’s a superficially similar entertainment that nonetheless manages to pervert the underlying intent and ideology of the original work into something safe, unchallenging, and marketable.
But does that make it a bad movie?
I would argue… also no.
Sure, in the macro sense, it has an underlying ideology that I find stagnant at best and actively destructive at worst… but for status-quo affirming Hollywood trash, the movie is still an entertaining star vehicle for Keanu Reeves as he tries out a totally new thing for himself (that is, playing a cynical @$$hole). It’s still loaded with great character actors delivering fun performances, and some interesting visuals to accompany its stale narrative.
And let’s not forget the matter of taste here. I mean, I can agree with “Dangerous Habits”’s underlying philosophical position on unjust hierarchies of power and the cruelty of systems… but there’s still an underlying prickly arrogance to the story and the character that gets under my skin (“John Constantine is such a badass, he tricks THREE devils into curing his cancer, and then flips them off just because he can!”). Garth Ennis20 wrote the thing when he was twenty-one, and it often READS like something a twenty-one-year-old would write—with lots of angry tirades and macho posturing, even as it tries to be introspective and somewhat sensitive on the subject of cancer. That doesn’t make it bad either—it’s GREAT—but it’s not exactly my cup of tea.
Constantine, on the other hand, is a slick, well-performed, engaging Hollywood action-thriller with a stellar cast and decent direction. It’s just not actually about John Constantine.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Depends on if you’re a fan of the character in print. If you absolutely love the comics, then yeah… you should probably skip this one. But to the uninitiated, this is a charming little supernatural thriller with neat-o visuals and Keanu Reeves playing a cross between Blade and an exorcist. Doesn’t that sound like a fun movie?
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.75
- Lu: Peter Stormare can steal a movie right out from under everyone if you let him, even in a movie as packed with great performances as this one. And when his Lucifer makes his entrance, Stormare immediately captivates with just how repulsive he is. His feet drip boiling tar. He’s constantly sweating. Clad in an all-white suit that’s a size too small, his demeanor is a cross between that of a chain-gang warden and a demented child—giggling and clapping at the thought of tormenting John and taking every small opportunity to be petty and cruel (like holding John’s lighter just out of reach of his cigarette). He’s still vicious and scary, as you’d expect… but that just makes it all the more unnerving when he titters like a perverted schoolboy at Gabriel’s attempts to insult him (“I do miss the old names…”).
- The First Exorcism: After a quick prologue set in Mexico, the movie proper opens with a young girl being possessed by a demon in an apartment in Los Angeles. Suddenly, a cab pulls up to the building, and a cigarette is dramatically dropped from the passenger side window. The opening exorcism sequence is perfectly constructed to introduce us to John and his methods: his cool, calm demeanor when he first comes in tells us he’s done this kind of thing many times before, and his line to the possessed girl (“This is Constantine. John Constantine… @$$hole.”) tells us that he has both a reputation and an ego. So when things go sideways, the fact that John gets worried tells us that something is VERY wrong—and his solution (trapping the possessing demon in a full-length mirror and then smashing the mirror) is novel and fun! It’s an exciting, clever opener that gives you a good taste of things to come.
- Last Rites: When John learns that Balthazar is involved in the mystery plot, he immediately goes and kicks the crap outta the half-demon with holy water and his holy knuckle duster (… oy). But when Balthazar refuses to tell John what he knows, Constantine pulls out the big guns: he starts reading Balthazar his last rites, threatening to send the demon to HEAVEN instead of Hell. Balthazar squirms and protests, clearly terrified as John recites the Commendation of the Dying… and before John can finish his final “amen”, the half-demon spills his guts. It’s a cute inversion of the detective-story trope of pumping a suspect for information, and John puts a perfect button on the scene when he tells Balthazar “by the way… You have to ASK for absolution to be forgiven. Asshole.”
- Hell: So a big part of the visual concept for the movie is its depiction of Hell, which is presented as a dimension/reality layered beneath our own, that looks like a nightmarish reflection of the world we live in. And kudos to Francis Lawrence and his concept artists/visual effects team for coming up with a pretty unique take on the idea: their conceit is that Hell would look like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion that would basically just keep going, buffeting the landscape with endless blasting wind and flames as the dilapidated environment buckled, but never quite collapsed. It’s a dynamic environment that only pops up in a couple of scenes, but leaves an impression!
- The FINAL Exorcism: Possibly the most horrifying beat in the film, thanks ENTIRELY to Rachel Weisz’s performance. After Constantine is seemingly able to dispel the demonic possession of Angela near the climax of the film, there’s a brief moment of peace as Angela returns to normal and smiles… only for a strange look to cross her face. Then her eyes go wider… and her breath starts coming sharp and fast… and the camera whips down to reveal Mammon trying to claw his way out of her stomach. Angela flails and bucks in pain as Constantine tries to push the demon back; her eyes roll back into their sockets and she can’t even find the breath to scream and… GOSH, it’s just a chilling performance, which helps to distract from the terrible C.G. monster face they painted onto her belly.
NEXT ISSUE: Let’s turn our sights waaaaaay back to the ‘90s, when the success of Burton’s Batman inspired a legion of imitators… one of which was an ambitious small-screen adaptation of ANOTHER major DC Comics character. Yep—we’re going to look at the 1990 T.V. movie-slash-pilot episode of The Flash!