Holy moley! Judge Dennis Prince may be on the verge of committing comic-book sacrilege: he approves of this graphic novel-gone-Hollywood. Forgive him, fan-boys, for he knows not why you gripe.
Although some foolishly proclaim they feel as if they've been to Hell and back, for John Constantine, it's an all-too-real commute.
On the date that marks this new millennium's sign of the Biblical beast—06/06/06—Warner Brothers marked the dubious occasion with a re-release of 2005's Constantine in a tempting new HD DVD remastering. Is it just an exploitation of the purportedly demonic date or is this new release truly worthy of your praise?
Two words: it is.
Facts of the Case
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves, Speed) is a different sort of enforcement agent. He doesn't battle common thieves, thugs, or drug runners in the seedy parts of L.A.—he'll leave that to the men and women in blue. His sights are set on those denizens that actually incite others to commit petty crimes and grand larceny. He's hot on the trail of the vermin that would tempt mankind to tread into the wasteland of the offensive, the profane, and even the unholy. There's a battle underway for humanity, and John Constantine is walking the beat. An unwitting public servant of sorts, Constantine doesn't carry a badge; he carries a cross.
John Constantine was cursed with a "gift" from his childhood: he has the ability to see the angels and evil minions that co-inhabit the Earth alongside mortal humans. The battle for mankind's ultimate salvation—or damnation—is hanging unsteadily in a sort of celestial détente, a standoff between God and Satan themselves. Without direct intervention, the test is on to see which path humans will choose on the road to their own eternity. Only angelic guidance or wicked temptation can be employed to tip the scales, one way or the other. And while most humans are completely unaware of the good and evil influences among them, John Constantine can see them all for exactly what they are—winged advocates or twisted adversaries. Now, Constantine detects an attempt to shift the balance on Earth and force the fate of man's salvation as demonic "soldiers" actually attempt to manifest themselves on the planet despite the rules of the détente—no direct contact. While Constantine struggles to thwart the approaching evil, he also must help a distraught police detective, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy Returns), to reconcile her own beliefs upon asserting her twin sister's suicide was actually induced by an overt evil influence. Yet for all the dark forces that Constantine keeps at bay, it's unclear whether he's motivated by holy servitude or for the salvation of his own soul.
Constantine is based on the Hellblazer comic series started in 1988 and published under the DC/Vertigo imprint. The character of John Constantine actually first appeared in 1985, wandering the panels of the Swamp Thing comics, but ultimately gained a solo run in response to fans' favorable feedback. But the John Constantine of this 2005 feature film is significantly different—actually, completely different—than that of the comic series (so I understand).
Comic readers are highly protective of the characters and characterizations the come to know and love within the well-read pages of pulp "funny books" and slick graphic novels. While their always eager to see Hollywood validate the subject of their fervor, they're often disappointed, dispirited, and even prompted to hostility when they find discrepancies in the book-to-screen translation. This sort of reaction seems amplified when a graphic novel character is purportedly mishandled. Such is the case of John Constantine. First, Hollywood needed to navigate away from the waters of consumer confusion when the original Hellblazer title was too similar to another recent comic-to-celluloid effort, Hellboy. Next, Constantine's original blonde-haired, Sting-like physicality would need to be traded in and modeled after a chosen "hot actor"—that would be the dark-haired Keanu Reeves. And, Constantine's entire backstory would need to be jettisoned—he's no longer an enigmatic conman from Liverpool, England but, rather, a burned out L.A. stiff with a sallow countenance, apathetic demeanor, and fatalistic bent.
Comic hounds were infuriated yet those not familiar with the illustrated series were free to experience this film incarnation in a truly untainted fashion. For many in the latter camp, Constantine emerged as a suitable spiritual-supernatural thriller.
Clearly, first-time feature director Francis Lawrence was two worlds away from his comfort zone where he dinked with four-minute videos featuring the likes of Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake (all demon soldiers, to be sure). Therefore, when arguments are presented proclaiming the freshman filmmaker shows fumbling inexperience through the underdeveloped characters on screen, there's little to rebut. However, visually, Lawrence shows his very capable chops. This isn't to say the film offers nothing more than an indifferent display of random eye candy a la Joel Schumacher but, rather, there is enough characterization and situation to resemble a reasonably compelling horror-thriller. The plot, such that it is, certainly requires your undivided attention as key points and expository moments are quick and curt. The film barely delves into the theological matters at hand beyond the premise that John sees scary things and there's something truly troubling rising up from the fire and brimstone below. Expect just that much and then enjoy the visuals—which are very well realized—and you'll likely enjoy this descent into the Nether World.
Keanu Reeves's performance is pretty much the same as you saw in Speed and The Matrix. He's pissed off, he mutters his discontent to himself, and leaps into action in manic outbursts. Apparently, that's the persona the filmmakers believed (or were contracted to deliver) would be suitable to movie-going audiences, many of whom would be unfamiliar with the Hellblazer publications. If you like to watch Keanu brood and fester and then fly off the handle, he won't disappoint you here. Not a breakout performance by any stretch of the imagination yet not entirely unsuitable to the production as it's presented here.
Rachel Weisz performance as the troubled detective serves as a perfect bookend to Reeves's character'. She, too, grumbles her way through the proceedings as her character, too, is burdened with a similar sort of reality as Constantine's. Collectively, their benign personae severely flatten out any hopes of an engaging character arc. Constantine's sidekick, Chas Kramer (Shia LaBeouf, I, Robot), is a utilitarian character on board for a single purpose and is developed precisely to suit a severely telegraphed plot device. The best performance comes from Peter Stormare (The Brothers Grimm) as Satan. He sinks his teeth into the role without elaborate makeup appliances and delivers mightily. The oddly ambiguous Gabriel is well realized by Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia) but doesn't get enough screen time to realize her full potential.
But it's the effects, right, that make Constantine a film to see? Well, there's plenty of CGI peppered across the screen and, thankfully, it's very well managed. The visualizations of Hell are quite striking and Constantine's presence in the fiery landscape is nicely managed. The soldier demons are also well done, as is the unusual vermin demon. Sure, many composite sequences are easily detectable but none appeared to be amateurishly rendered. Unfortunately, despite the excellent visuals, the film still lacks an overall atmosphere or mood that should visually and mentally envelop the viewer. Nifty as it all looks, the audience is too often relegated to being a mere onlooker rather than an emotionally engaged participant.
Nearly a year following the standard definition (SD) release, Warner Home Video presents Constantine in a near perfect new HD DVD presentation. Beginning with the image quality, this one is among the best yet in the current catalog of HD offerings. Framed at a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.40:1, the picture quality is excellent in its depiction of smooth and well-saturated colors and incredible detail levels. In some instances, the enhanced format can expose tattletale artifacts inherent to poorly managed compositing yet here it becomes difficult to detect the in-frame assembly of real and digital elements. The black levels are velvety smooth and supple and the contrast is well controlled to prevent murky darkness. The only shortcoming here is that some of the skin texturing is a tad soft in comparison to other HD transfers. No compression artifacts were visible yet there was one skyline sequence where a brief rainbow effect emerged. From an authoring standpoint, the playback was unhampered by technical issues.
The soundtrack was perhaps more impressive than the image quality as the on-board Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track virtually punches a hole into your viewing environment. Since much of the context involves ethereal elements from multiple dimensions of reality, you'll find your surround channels will be kept busy delivering swirling voices, screeches, and explosive remnants all around you. The low end is very well engaged here yet never succumbs to shoddy "boominess." The only drawback to the active soundstage is that much of the dialogue here is difficult to interpret, not due to an indifferent mix but, rather, due to the poorly enunciated delivery of lines from the actors. This is a shame, really, since it's the only element that prevents this track from gaining highest marks. This disc also includes the new Dolby TrueHD track yet, as of this writing, is constrained to two-channel playback on current hardware configurations.
As for the extras, the most compelling here is that this is the first Warner HD DVD to include the new "In Movie Experience" (IME). This feature, exclusive to the HD DVD format, provides the means to view the feature while learning about various aspects of the production through picture-in-picture delivery. During the studio logos, director Lawrence pops up in the upper right-hand corner of the screen to welcome you to the IME presentation. From here on, various PIPs will appear around the screen through which the filmmakers discuss and explore various aspects of the production, both in full motion imagery as well as via still photos with voice over commentary. Naturally, as this is only the second commercially available HD DVDs to include IME (Universal launched the feature with its 5/23/06 issue of The Bourne Supremacy in HD format), it's under considerable scrutiny to live up to its pitch—and, frankly, it does. Unlike an audio commentary track, the IME presentation here presents specific comments and visual information at particular moments in the film. Truly, this is "film school" come to home video where you can see the various crew members talking and can inspect concept art, effects setups, and makeup designs concurrent to its appearance during the feature. It's not a steady peppering of PIPs, though, and it's completely possible to follow the flow of the film itself in between the informational inserts (a characteristic that some may take exception to, claiming there are gaps in the IME material; in this format, it's a preferable approach). The PIPs are strategically positioned so as not to obscure a particular element being discussed and they often spill into the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. The DD+ audio is maintained during the feature playback except when IME audio is playing, that being presented in 2.0 mono, temporarily suppressing the feature audio that would normally emit from the front right and left channels. As a flagship effort, this one is managed well and makes good use of the enhanced on-screen content capabilities of the HD format. The only concern here is with the stationary IME icon that appears in the left-hand area of the upper black bar; it's conceivable this could lead to burn in on some display panels and hopefully its use will be reconsidered for future releases (In my opinion, it's as unwelcome as a watermark whereas a simple LED indicator on the player's display panel would suffice).
Other features include the same content as was delivered with the 2005 two-disc special edition, including running audio commentaries (different here, though, as the comments of Lawrence and producer Akiva Goldsman are presented on one track while the comments from writers Kevin Brodbin and Frank Capello are delivered on a separate track; previously, all comments were merged into a single running commentary). Also present is the collection of featurettes, deleted scenes, and alternate commentary, previously offered on Disc Two of the Special Edition SD release. Finally, you'll find the teaser and regular theatrical trailers along with the Perfect Circle music video. The only thing missing here is the limited Hellblazer comic that was included in the two-disc set. Nonetheless, all these features plus the IME content plus the enhanced HD audio and video makes this an excellent new disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's difficult to say whether followers of the original comic will enjoy this adaptation. Many have grumbled yet just as many who are so impassioned with the series have been willing to accept the adaptation—they're just not perfectly thrilled with it.
Standing on its own merits, Constantine is a worthwhile film and generally entertaining. If you've never seen the comic series prior, you'll likely stand to be relieved of the need to compare.
Although not one of the strongest horror-thrillers going, Constantine is nonetheless an entertaining ride and the enhancements available via the HD format make it a superlative experience beyond the SD release. If you're adopting the HD format, consider including this disc in your growing hi-def library—you'll be glad you did.
Despite this being a "loosely based on" or even "as inspired by" adaptation of the Hellblazer comic, the defendant here is absolved for all eternity, duly forgiven for any of its comparatively minor transgressions. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• In Movie Experience (IME)
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