Judge David Johnson has a fun fact for you: Keanu Reeves has played characters in three separate films who have gone to Hell: John Constantine in this movie, Ted Logan in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, and Nelson Moss in Sweet November.
Hell wants him. Heaven won't take him. Earth needs him.
A comic book film of a different ilk, Constantine takes the hero of the DC/Vertigo Hellblazer comics, the demon-deporting occult expert John Constantine, casts him with Keanu Reeves (The Matrix), and stuffs him into a dark, occult horror film. Followers of the comic will notice major departures from the mythology, but fanboy gripes aside, does this film stand up as a theatrical experience?
I believe it does.
Facts of the Case
John Constantine is as reluctant a hero as you can get. A master of the occult and an exorcist extraordinaire, he is the bane of demons everywhere. See, an agreement struck by God and Satan has prevented angels and demons from roaming the earth freely, though those devious little Hellspawn relentlessly try to find ways to bend the rules.
That's where John Constantine steps in. Using his skills and his power to spot clandestine demons, he makes his way through the world kicking them out of our plane of existence, casting them back into the fires of Hell.
But he does this not for the good of humanity. No, Constantine is intent on sending as many demons packing as possible merely to get into the good graces of the Big Guy Himself, and perhaps earn his way into Heaven. Driven insane as a child by the nightmarish demonic visions, he committed suicide, only to be resuscitated after two minutes in Hell. His mortal sin of self-annihilation punched his ticket down under, and, with a recent diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, he is, er, Hell-bent on kicking enough demon ass to reconcile with God.
His travels bring him into contact with Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy), a cop investigating the mysterious suicide of her sister Isabel. John is reluctant at first to offer pro bono work, but he soon realizes Angela's story may have something to do with the recent increase in supernatural activity; demon traffic is way up, and John is convinced something big is coming.
Well, of course, something big is coming. Big and evil. Aided by his plucky sidekick Chas (Shia LaBeouf, Holes) and the neutral being Midnite (Djimoun Hounsou, Gladiator), John must unravel the mystery before the world, you know, ends and all.
During its theatrical run, Constantine did moderate business, received decidedly mixed reviews, and, from what I've gathered, ran afoul of many of the fans of the comic book. On the outside it has all the characteristics of yet another mediocre to subpar comic book translation.
Whatever. I loved this flick.
I should note, of course, that I've never read the comics, and had never heard of the character of John Constantine before this movie. For that reason, I will willingly defer to Hellblazer super-fans' perception of the film; I do understand the big changes that went into the feature adaptation and how that could perhaps sour one's experience. But as I learned from the Bourne films, a picture doesn't have to be completely faithful to the source material (in the case of Bourne, at all faithful) to be decent. I enjoyed Constantine as a movie. Bottom line.
This isn't your little brother's comic book film. There are no bright pastel colors and flawless heroes and happy endings and fun, lively special effects. Constantine, before anything else, is a horror film. It is an adult adaptation inspired by an adult comic. The imagery is fierce and disturbing. The subject matter is dark. The characters are tortured souls.
The plot is complex, too. I'm a sucker for these religious thrillers, but I could see how casual filmgoers might struggle to wade through the intricacies of Kevin Bordbin's story. The narrative is laced with Catholic (and catholic) theology, interspersed with invented mythos. But the film is set up to gradually immerse the viewer into John Constantine's world. There is no interminable opening text crawl laying out the balance of good evil, the pact struck by God and the Devil, the existence of half-breed demons and angels (an invention entirely of the writers, and a clashing point for fans), and the role of John Constantine himself. No, we are thrust into this world unknowing of the mechanism by which it operates, and learning as we go along. Heck, it isn't until nearly halfway through the film that Constantine unleashes a smidgen of exposition. And even after the movie closes and the credits roll, there are many, many questions still left.
I like that. I like the sense of mystery that director Francis Lawrence has created. As he points out in his excellent commentary, this is John Constantine's world: He knows it, he lives it, and he's not a very talkative person, so we can't expect to be spoon-fed exposition. So it is not frustrating to be left guessing—it's actually refreshing to soak it in gradually.
And there's so much to absorb. Lawrence, a former music video director making his feature film debut, proves he has a great visual sense. The images and atmosphere he packs into this film are so rich and entertaining—and continually topping themselves as the film progresses—it's easy to lose track of the story; you'll just be savoring the landscapes and creations he unveils. One of the coolest examples is John Constantine's descent into Hell (through a process never explained). In Constantine Hell is a version of Earth, just burning and fire-swept and crawling with maggot-ridden demons. It's a brief sojourn, but so frickin' cool it may be the sequence that most stays with you.
Again, don't let the fact this is a film inspired by a comic book lead you to think that it is suitable for kids. It's not. And that R rating should be the first sign. Constantine is a film packed with vividly disturbing imagery. The loud, startling opening exorcism in which our antihero springs a demon from a young Hispanic girl sets the table for what's to come. Images of deteriorating, soulless beasts pop up throughout the film (one scene where a young John Constantine is menaced by a demon on a bus is particularly nasty) and just add to the unnerving atmosphere that segments like the aforementioned Hell-trek create.
The acting is strong in the film. Weisz is solid as the female lead, especially in the usually thankless role as the neophyte-turned-plot-portal-for the-audience. Shia LaBeouf manages to play up the young sidekick for limited comic relief without being nearly as irritating and invasive as he could have been. Other standouts include Tilda Swinton (Vanilla Sky) as the androgynous angel Gabriel and Peter Stormare as an excellent Lucifer.
And then we've got Keanu. Look, if you thought he sucked in every other movie he's ever done, don't expect your mind to be changed with his performance here. Sure he's wooden. Sure he has the emotive ability of a park bench. But consider me as being in the camp of "People Who Recognize That Keanu Reeves Is Limited as an Actor But, You Know, Just Think the Guy is Cool as All Get-Out." I like him. I like his laid-back demeanor on screen, and I think that he's perfectly suited for the role.
I wanted to mention one last thing: It is possible that this film floated my boat the way it did because it deals with a cosmology I both find fascinating and—for the most part—subscribe to. Earth as a battlefield between spiritual beings of good and evil, and man as the free will–infused prize…I'm down with it.
As can be predicted with a big-name Warner Bros. release, this disc looks and sounds awesome. A gorgeous 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer renders the images sharply and vividly. The Hell scenes are even cooler with the pristine detailing. The thing pops. The digital mix pushes the sound, aggressively utilizing the surrounds and taking full advantage of the LFE mix to get your lungs shaking. Overall, a great technical outing.
Just as impressive is the smorgasbord of special features. Constantine is a two-disc set, with the second disc devoted fully to special features. On the first disc, you'll get a great commentary track by Francis Lawrence, producer Akiva Goldsman, and writers Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello. Not only do they talk about the process of bringing the film together, but they also expound on the narrative, which will be a nice supplement for those who found themselves a little lost. The music video "Passive" by A Perfect Circle and the trailers comprise the rest of the bonuses on disc one.
Now for disc two, which is loaded with featurettes:
• "Conjuring Constantine": A detailed look at transferring the comic to the big screen. Many of the big changes are addressed here and will at least give fans an idea of why the source material was altered.
• "The Production from Hell: Director's Confessional, Collision with Evil, Holy Relics": A feature on making the movie. Lawrence talks about his vision, an opening car crash gag is revealed, and the props guy opens up about his creations.
• "Imagining the Underworld: Hellscape, Visualizing Vermin, Warrior Wings, Unholy Abduction": This is a nifty compilation of behind-the-scenes looks at the visual effects. The conceptualization and execution of Hell, the vermin demon, the angels' wings, and the killer effect where Angela is sucked through an office building are all highlighted.
• "Constantine Cosmology": The most lackluster of the extras. An author talks about John Constantine and his hero's journey.
• "Foresight: The Power of Previsualization": Francis Lawrence talks about the previsualizing process of the move, how the foundation was laid for the look and feel of the film.
Finally, a load of deleted scenes are included and, believe it or not, they are actually pretty interesting. Whole storylines were excised and it's cool to see them here, as well as some genuinely frightening scenes (one involving a demon priest stands out). There's also an alternate ending, which was wisely deleted, featuring the ultimate fate of a major character.
Oh, and I almost forgot the special edition Hellblazer comic book that comes with the set. Included is a reprint of "Dangerous Habits," the source for some story points in the film, and some other Constantine material from the past.
A great package from top to bottom.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I really, really dug this flick, I do admit that it tends to lumber as far as pacing goes, and the twisty-turny nature of the plot adds to the density. It's not really a fast-paced thriller, as there are no real big action set-pieces—a major element of comic book films—and that may turn people off.
A summary of my thoughts in cutesy review blurb format: "A devilishly good time!" "A Hell of a lot of fun!" "Constantine is a hot flick!" "See it! You'll be damned if you don't!"
Not guilty. Into the light I command thee.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Director Francis Lawrence, Producer Akiva Goldsman, and Writers Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello
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