I haven’t seen this superhero/horror flick since I first watched it back in 2005 and thought it was mostly meh. I was pleasantly surprised when I gave it a second chance recently, and discovered that it’s actually much, much better than I remembered.
Critically maligned when it first premiered, Constantine didn’t really impress me either; it probably didn’t help that I watched it so soon after the terrible Matrix sequels and a few good years before I finally started to appreciate Keanu Reeves as a unique movie star he is. Regarded against the recent glut of the bland Marvel superhero movies and mostly awful DC offerings, director Francis Lawrence’s demonic noir is refreshingly weird and stylish – and surprisingly earnest at the core. It’s not without flaws, but with talks of a sequel in the works, it could be that I’m not the only one who’s come to believe that Constantine didn’t deserve the damnation it received.
(Late great Roger Ebert apparently put it alongside Catwoman on his personal list of most-hated movies. Yikes!)
I never read the original Hellblazer comic book this movie’s based on, but going in clueless means that I’ll never have the quibbles of the die-hard fans who might have taken issue with the deviations. I do know that the original Constantine was blond and British; I wonder if the filmmakers took one horrified look at Reeves’ infamous butchery of the British accent in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and thought to themselves, let’s just not go there shall we.
So in the film version, Constantine is an LA-based, freelance demonic hunter and exorcist, and could probably give Philip Marlowe a run for his money when it comes to sarcastic, hard-boiled cynicism. As a young boy, he was able to see the world for what it is, the battleground between the forces of Heaven and Hell. Because this is a very Catholic universe, there are of course Rules and a kind of balance is maintained by the half-breeds, hybrids between a human and either angel or demon, while neither full-fledged demons or angels can cross over. The movie plays with an interesting idea that there’s a big difference between knowledge and faith: Constantine knows that God is real, but he has no faith in the Almighty or His plan.
Because of something he’s done earlier in his life, Constantine knows that the Rules condemn him to Hell when he dies. Worse, a terminal lung cancer verdict leaves him with mere months, rather than a nice solid buffer of fifty years or so (the grim diagnosis doesn’t make him drop his ever-present cigarettes). Constantine spends his days trying hard to win the favour of Heaven by deporting the demonic forces back to Hell, but as Tilda Swinton’s half-breed angel Gabriel reminds him, calculated good deeds are simply not enough.
Enter Rachel Weisz as Angela, a police detective determined to prove that her twin sister – a devoted Catholic no less – would have never committed suicide, and that something sinister is behind her fall from the roof of a mental hospital. Constantine himself is aware that something is amiss in the demonic realm, so after a false start the two team up in order to get to the bottom of it. In the process, Angela becomes that all-important character in a movie who’s suddenly dropped into a weird and wacky secret world, and needs some things explained to her.
Though it’s not lacking in exposition, Constantine doesn’t explain everything about its world; there are some powers and magical objects that just sort of appear and you simply have to roll with them. Though I didn’t feel like I needed every single bit of the lore painstakingly explained, this casual approach can be detrimental when it comes to the supporting characters, in particular the relationship between Constantine and his youthful sidekick/apprentice played by cherubic Shia LaBeouf. Their connection is never properly fleshed out, so it feels like a big ask when the movie suddenly expects you to care at a specific point in the story.
Some questionable early 00’s CGI aside, I was instantly struck by how great this movie looks. You feel like a lot of thought went into every carefully composed shot, and there’s always something visually interesting happening in the frame. I quite liked the movie’s depiction of Hell as basically a modern cityscape decimated by a nuclear attack, though it made me realise that I actually haven’t seen any other onscreen portrayals of the Christian Hell. Just imagine Hieronymus Bosch’s grotesque visions of Hell brought to life with the help of modern technology!
Perhaps it took John Wick for me to appreciate just how well Keanu Reeves works within this neo-noirish space; in many ways Constantine is just a Catholic John Wick. Going purely by the script, John Constantine is hardly a sympathetic protagonist, but you’re on his side simply because of Reeves’ sheer likeability (and some amusingly snarky dialogue). There are some standouts among the supporting cast as well. Rachel Weisz’ Angela starts off as more or less an audience surrogate, but there’s a neat story twist later on that sends her on her own character journey. Tilda Swinton has fun channeling an androgynous glam rock star as Gabriel, and I’ve no idea how I managed to forget Peter Stormare’s utterly delicious appearance as Lucifer. Though it’s brief, it surely ranks up there with the best portrayals of Satan onscreen.