‘Constantine’ (2005) Review

“God’s a kid with an ant farm, lady.”

I’ve been a fan of John Constantine since back in the 80’s, with his first appearance in Swamp Thing and subsequent solo series, Hellblazer. While I haven’t kept up with John – getting too close to Constantine is bad for your health – I’ve always enjoyed the character, including his short-lived live TV series and Justice League Dark appearances.

Given all that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I didn’t like the 2005 Constantine film, which plays fast and loose with the supporting characters, setting and even changes out the blonde-haired, sharp-witted, BRITISH main character with… Keanu Reeves. Not a man known for a good British accent (which he thankfully doesn’t have to attempt here). As an adaptation of the comic character the film is an abject failure. It captures very little what makes either the character or the comic book unique.

On the other hand, as a film about a broken occult investigator in world where God and the Devil have abandoned us to the tender mercies of half-demons/half-angels – I think it works pretty damn well.

So I set aside my geek rage for this one, and I always have a good time.

Maybe John Constantine just shouldn’t be a main character. (I say this as a fan of Matt Ryan’s character in the short-lived TV series – he’s perfect. The show… less so.) He’s apparently done just fine as a supporting member of the animated JLA and even the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow series. That being said, I can’t help but wish for something like a BBC series, something like Sherlock, maybe even with Ryan in the role. I can dream, right?

Rumors in the last couple of years indicates that there may be some interest in a follow-up film, with Reeves indicating a desire to reprise his role and Peter Stormare even posting on his Instagram account that a sequel was “in the works.” I’ll be first in line, if that ever comes to fruition.

The Medium
I have 2008 Blu-ray release of Constantine, part of a Warner Brothers triple play release along with Watchman (2009) and V for Vendetta (2008). It looks great and comes with a bunch of extras, including two commentary tracks, a bunch of deleted scenes and an alternate ending. It’s a decent package, especially for a film that didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, and if you’re a DC Vertigo fan the three pack is well worth it.

For streaming options, Constantine is available for subs on the SyFy app, SlingTV and DirectTV. It can also be rented and purchased from the usual online vendors. (At the time of this writing you can buy it on Vudu in HD for $5.)

The Movie
Constantine is a film centered around the eponymous John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), a bitter, cynical, chain-smoking investigator of occult occurrences. This is a guy who took a life when he was young and has spent a good chunk of his time since then trying to buy his way back into heaven by ‘deporting’ half-breeds (half-humans and half angel or devil) that break the ‘balance.’ This seems to mean destroying their body so they end up in hell. Pure angels and demons aren’t allowed, it’s against the “rules,” but in a great opening exorcism sequence we find out that demons are trying to break the rules, forcing their way into our world anyway.

In addition, we have Angela (Rachel Weisz), a cop whose devoutly Catholic sister has just committed suicide, which she doesn’t believe for a minute. She’s a non-nonsense, rational cop and doesn’t have a lot of time for ridiculous stories about demons and angels and half-breeds. We can tell how that’s going to turn out, but John’s such an ass that I’m always pulling for her anyway.

And then we have a plot by the Devil’s son, Mammon, to come into the material plane and rule over a hell on earth. So. You know. The usual. These stories intersect and intertwine with a few twists and turns along the way.

I like the look and feel of this film. I like how it’s almost always night. I like John’s apartment with the huge shutters and industrial sized jugs of (presumably holy) water everywhere. I think the movie’s version of hell is really well done and used, minimally, to great effect. I like the individual set pieces – from extended ones like the apocalyptic end sequences, to the short bit with the original carrier of the Spear of Destiny walking down a road as the cows die on either side of him.

I LOVE Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel. In fact, all the supporting characters are good – Midnight (Djimon Hounsou), Chaz (a very young Shia LeBouf), Beeman (Max Baker), Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), even Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale) – but Gabriel is worth the price of admission alone. That combination of self-righteousness, condescension, anger, pity and madness is just perfect. She also gets one of the best lines in the film – “Look at how well you’re doing!” Peter Stormare’s Lucifer is also good, but it wears thin on repeated viewings – he has flashes of brilliance, but there’s too much silliness for me.

The leads handle their roles very well. This is a role that I think Reeves is excellent for (again – for the movie version of the character, not the comic book versions), his stunted emotional range and extended delivery works in a faux-noir kind of way. Weisz is excellent, as always, with a good emotional weight that balances nicely with Reeve’s lack of the same.

I think the screenwriters (Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello) and director Francis Lawrence do a very good job of just letting the setting unfold, without too many expositional sequences. They’re in there – Reeves is given the job of explaining how the supernatural world works – but they’re mercifully short and for the most part we’re left on our own to figure out how things all fit together. I much prefer to figure things out in the context of a film than have everything explained out in voice-over or 5 minutes of info-dump dialogue (Dark City is much better without the voice-overs, IMHO).

And I like little bits that the director has added that just increase the quality of the film for me. The way Angela starts out the scene in which John ‘baptizes’ her in the bath behind the green glass of a door, hazy and obscured – and then moves closer to John and into clarity. I like when John traps a spider under a glass, blows smoke under it and says “welcome to my world.” (And I like that’s it Angela that sets the spider free.) I like that the leads never kiss.

Stick around for a nice little after-credits scene as well. It’s a little too much for some, but I’ve always liked it.

The Bottom Line
I’ve often lamented Constantine as a quality film that gets overlooked because of its failure to adhere to its inspiration. I can understand that – truly I can – but I do think it’s worth a view if you can set aside your expectations and just watch it on its own merits. It seems like it’s gotten a cult following over the years, and its faux-noir, supernatural-humanism world, filled with the damned, the divine and broken heroes is one I love to revisit. And I’d be happy to see another film in the same universe. Justice League Dark (film) producers, take note.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.