AGAINST THE GRAIN: Constantine (2005)

With a new and more faithful take on the way, is this first attempt for the terminal exorcist better than you remember?

John Constantine is a prick. He may possess the hallmarks of a Hollywood hero – the swaggering demeanour, billowing trenchcoat – but he’d rather sit at home smoking than save the world from apocalyptic forces. If it wasn’t for his unfortunate situation (he’s on his way down to Hell), life as we know it would have ended long ago. He doesn’t do good deeds because he feels like it. He saves our souls merely to save his own. He seeks redemption for a life poorly spent; a life endangered by his need to smoke thirty cigarettes a day. No wonder he’s a little grouchy.

Keanu Reeves has never been grouchy to my knowledge. At least not on the silver screen. His “surfer dude” persona seems to be slipping away slowly but surely, and the Neo complex has taken over. Throughout Constantine, Reeves can be seen bounding around the screen, vanquishing supernatural forces in varying degrees of stylised slow-motion. Only this time, he’s fighting demonic forces and not futuristic machines. Still, while “The One” was a clean-cut saviour formed from white trash, Constantine is a shade of grey man. He may be doing God’s work, but there’s more than a hint of the Devil in JC’s methods (but don’t let those initials fool you).

His first appearance makes this pretty clear, as he attempts to exorcise a demon from the body of a young girl. “This is Constantine,” he whispers into her ear. “John Constantine, asshole!” After enraging the demon though conventional means – a little chanting, a little symbolism – he captures the fiend in a mirror (demons, apparently, are incredibly vain), which he throws out of the window… landing on the bonnet of his friend’s cab. The glass smashes and the demon is lost to the ether, denting the perfectly good vehicle in the process. He saved the host’s life, but instead of checking to see if she’s okay, he reaches for his treasured cigarettes and rushes off to wallow in his own self-pity. Cheery fellow.

Perhaps this is why critics were so harsh on Constantine. Unlike the same year’s Fantastic Four, this comic book adaptation is relentlessly downbeat – its full of dark themes, has plenty of pretentious dialogue, and gives Reeves one of his more subdued roles to date. Yet, it still manages to function as trashy blockbuster entertainment with enough action and CGI to keep popcorn-munchers happy. That said, fans of the Hellblazer comics (published by DC and Vertigo) weren’t too happy with Warner’s treatment of the source material. After Alan Moore introduced him in the “hallowed” pages of Swamp Thing, John Constantine was given his own title by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis. Screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello have ignored most of his origin story – Moore’s Constantine was from Liverpool, looked like Sting, and spoke with an accent. So, in other words, he was nothing like Reeves. Brodbin even moved the action to Los Angeles when the studios wouldn’t take an British-set action film seriously. These weren’t good signs, admittedly.

Constantine is no classic but what it gets right is very good indeed. The debut feature from music video veteran Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), its a stylish if transparent concoction that helps to pass two hours painlessly. Unfortunately, the plot is a hodgepodge of horror and fantasy archetypes that doesn’t really make sense, but provides plenty of room for pyrotechnics. It has something to do with the Devil’s son who is plotting to crossover into our realm. Naturally, it’s up to Constantine to stop him. Aided by police officer Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), who can also see “the damned,” he attempts to prevent the on-coming apocalypse. But who can he trust? Will they succeed? And more importantly, will Constantine stop smoking?

It’s not a good idea to think about the plot during during the film. Many of the elements do not blend together seamlessly, with some half-baked ideas that receive no resolution at all. Yet credit should be given to the writers for some moments of originality – particularly their image of Hell. It looks like L.A. after a nuclear attack; a barren wasteland of swirling debris and forbidding skies. The film’s biggest plus is definitely Lawrence. Despite his MTV background, the director shows a great deal of restraint. Constantine moves at a leisurely pace, allowing Lawrence to depict a lovingly-detailed world. The picture has a bold and beautiful style that fuses old-style Noir techniques with atypical horror imagery. There’s always something to engage the eye, mostly making up for the film’s more egregious flaws.

The various action scenes are what elevate it above the norm. There’s a battle with a man made entirely from bugs (which is as CGI-heavy as you’d expect), a run-in with the otherworldly Balthazar (Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale), and a skirmish with a room full of possessed baddies. The latter plays like a mix of The Matrix and Blade as Reeves wields the “Holy Shotgun,” a weapon that also acts as a makeshift crucifix. Lawrence shoots the affair with whiz-bang style and verve, with Constantine’s enemies erupting into dust to Brian Tyler’s suitably atmospheric score. But my favourite scene was spoiled by the trailer. It’s simple yet hugely effective – the moment in which Angela is controlled by an unseen force. Her body is sent hurtling through walls, through offices, and out a skyscraper window… disappearing into the night sky. It’s “money” moments like this that give Constantine some serious entertainment value.

But other areas of the production stop it from becoming something more. Like the script, the cast seem to be on auto-pilot. In most respects, this is one of Reeves’ better turns. It’s a cynical and sarcastic Reeves, and he seems to be enjoying himself as Constantine, yet the Neo similarities are obvious (especially during the effects-heavy denouement). His dialogue delivery is occasionally stiff, but Reeves is good in the role. That said, he plays second fiddle to Weisz in many of the scenes they share. They worked together previously in the box office flop Chain Reaction, and she continues to act him off the screen. Weisz overcomes the uneven script, offering the best performance in the film and generating sympathy for her tortured character. Also good is Tilda Swinton as an androgynous  Gabriel.

The rest of the supporting cast fail to leave an impression, with the exception of Peter Stormare in a classy cameo. Shia LaBeouf is underused as Constantine’s willing assistant, Chas, who serves no real purpose in the plot. Providing some light comedic relief, LaBeouf is at least a contrast to Reeves’ stoic persona. Same goes for the versatile Djimon Hounsou as the mystical Midnite, whose bar is a haven for “half-breeds” and demonic clientele (to get in, you have to possess psychic abilities – one of the film’s cooler ideas). But Stormare has the most fun, chewing the scenery as the Devil. Dressed in white, with no prosthetics or horns, the actor is still an ominous presence, delivering his lines with pantomimic glee. But everyone in the film has been better in other projects. It seems that once Lawrence gets a handle on directing his actors as well as the crew, he might become a very talented filmmaker…

Ultimately, Constantine is a technically impressive and lavishly mounted production that buckles under the sheer pressure of its ambitions. Yet it is pretty far from a failure. Despite an uneven script, it manages to entertain and there’s some genuine thrills to be had. Hellblazer readers will most likely hate it with a fiery passion, but those new to the world of exorcist/anti-hero John Constantine will certainly find something to appreciate.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Originally, Tarsem Singh (The CellImmortals) was attached to direct with Nicolas Cage to star. However, the director said that “with Cage, I cannot make the film I had wanted to.” Soon after Singh left the picture, Cage did as well.
  • The original title, Hellblazer, was changed because it was too similar to Hellboy. The movies were scheduled to be released within a short space of time between them and it was decided that having such similar titles would hurt the sales of tickets. Therefore, Hellblazer was changed to Constantine. The “Spear of Destiny” prop is the same one as used in Hellboy.
  • Domino Harvey, the model and bounty hunter who was the basis for the movie Domino, makes a cameo at Papa Midnight’s Bar. She is seated at a table as an angel, with a demon nibbling her ear.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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