Saturday At The Movies: Constantine

What do you do if you know you’re dying and that when you die, you know that you’re going to hell?

If you’re the conniving yet charismatic rogue mage John Constantine, you do the only thing that can be done: you hasten the inevitable.

That’s sort of the premise behind the famous comic book character’s story arc in the 2005 film called, appropriately enough, Constantine. Directed by Francis Lawrence, his big screen debut after making a name for himself in music videos, and starring Keanu Reeves as the titular anti-hero, Constantine wasn’t all that well received by either critics or fans upon it’s debut. But in the seven years since it’s release, a near-cult audience has embraced the film and hope, an emotion not necessarily synonymous with the character himself, abounds in terms of a sequel being made.

That time may soon be upon us. Until then, there’s still the original to affectionately watch and discuss.

Constantine tells the story of a black arts mage/exorcist/detective, investigating the reoccurrence of hellish demons, forcibly making their way into our world, all the while trying to save himself from his terminal lung cancer. There was a balance made between heaven and hell, we’re told, where angels and demons only act to influence mankind. They are not allowed to manifest themselves on our earthly plane. Something, then, is definitely amiss.

The character of John Constantine first appeared within the pages of the Swamp Thing comic book in 1985. He quickly became a popular character with readers, which launched him into his own, very sophisticated monthly horror series, in 1988. The Vertigo Comics imprint of DC Comics has published it regularly ever since. That character was English, London-based by way of Liverpool, wearing blond hair and a sandy-coloured trench coat. In the Constantine film, the iconic character became American. It was set in modern day Los Angeles and he had black hair and wore a black suit. Many hard-core fans found this change unforgivable and quickly dismissed the film. The truth is that although these changes were made to make the character more appealing to an American audience, the general core of the John Constantine character was still there: bitter, wise cracking, manipulative and charismatic. Major plot threads of the film itself were taken directly from the comic books, specifically the acclaimed Original Sins and Dangerous Habits storylines, written by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis respectively. What more could fans want?

Well, an English accent for starters. And that damnable trench coat.

The film truly has a remarkable cast of A-list actors. A vested Keanu Reeves plays a believably disconsolate dying, and hell-bound, John Constantine. Rachel Weisz gives a great performance as a single-minded detective, investigating the apparent suicide of her twin sister. Djimon Hounsou is the perfect, if under utilized, voodoo mage, Papa Midnight and Tilda Swinton brilliantly portrays the sexually amorphous and untrustworthy angel, Gabriel. A young Shia LaBeouf is Constantine’s comedic but in-training sidekick, Chas and Gavin Rossdale of rock band Bush (or Bush X, depending upon where you buy your music) has a small but fun role as a half-breed demon. The always-amazing Peter Stormare makes the most memorable of appearance as the completely diabolical Lucifer. Oh yeah. It was bound to happen at the end of the film. And let me tell you – it’s so worth the wait!

Francis Lawrence’s visuals are something to behold in this film. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more horrifying visualization of hell than what he presents in Constantine: a burning, smouldering, post nuclear Lost Angeles, filled with the wailing of the damned and grotesque meanderings of demon foot soldiers, bent on capturing wayward souls. It’s both blood curdling and riveting. He gets great performances out of his actors as well. There are a number of fantastically acted scenes in the film, including: the banter between Constantine and Midnight before our protagonist is sent to hell via electrocution on Sing Sing’s famous wooden chair, the aforementioned final scene with Stormare as the devil, and the exchange between Reeves and Swinton as Constantine bargains with the angel for his life. That particular exchange sums up the character of John Constantine perfectly – especially how writer Garth Ennis wrote him in the comic books.

Age has been kind to Constantine. I enjoyed it for what it was when it was first released: a different take on a favourite character, but his same raison d’etre. This is simply a noir horror take on an English, gothic horror story. In the intervening years since it came out, I’ve grown to like the film even more, holding it in high regard with other top horror or thriller films. It traverses the ideas of heaven and hell, angels and demons, with remarkable tact, never straying too far into silliness – something that is very easy to do with that particular subject matter.

Constantine made over $230 million at the box office. A pretty good take for what amounts to be an esoteric character. It spawned a video game and a series of three novels from author and screenwriter, John Shirley. Fans, too, have actually warmed to the movie as an entity unto itself, and all parties involved in the filming have said they’d like to make a sequel, specifically director Francis Lawrence, who would like to make a real “R” rated horror film instead of the “PG-13” that Constantine was.

That sequel talk has heated up of late. With DC Comics cancelling the John Constantine: Hellblazer monthly comic series this coming February and restarting it under it’s new title, Constantine, it would seem that the parent media company, Time Warner, is looking to build some kind of mind share for the character. Guillermo del Toro has shown some interest in the anti-hero as well, and there’s been some anecdotal musing that John Constantine could find himself in some sort of tent-pole movie featuring a number of DC Comics’ darker, magically oriented, characters. Could Alan Moore’s “American Gothic” storyline form Swamp Thing be that tent-pole story?

Until then, we’ll have the horrific joy of watching an Americanized Constantine. And I’m just fine with that. And if you’re looking to read some of the great comics that inspired Constantine, well, we’ve got that for you too, here.

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