Anybody who reads DC’s Vertigo line of comics will be familiar with him: a trench-coated Sting look-alike with a Liverpuddlian accent, a Silk Cut cigarette dangling from his lip, a hoard of dead friends, and a problem with authority. John Constantine is one of the world’s finest occultists, and in the war between Heaven and Hell, he’s firmly on the side of humanity. He’s a smart-ass, a former punk rocker, a man who can spit in the devil’s eye and get away with it (seriously: he once tricked Lucifer into drinking holy water). I wish someone would explain to me how Keanu Reeves got cast as John Constantine?
You have to understand, I’m a longtime fan of the Hellblazer series. Even when it’s at its worst, I love it. When I heard it was being made into a movie, I got excited. Unlike, say, Sandman, it might actually be possible to make a decent movie about John Constantine. The day I heard who’d been cast, I was ready to spit nails. I don’t know how many Wednesday afternoons I’ve spent ranting with the owner of my favorite comics shop about it. So, of course, I walked into the theater expecting to hate it.
I found myself oddly frustrated by what turned out to be a terrible version of my favorite comic, but a pretty good movie.
The Spear of Destiny (which pierced the side of Christ as He hung on the cross, killing Him) is a magical artifact of incredible power. It has been lost since the end of W.W.II. Now it’s been found again, somewhere in Mexico. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Constantine is called in to assist in the exorcism of a young girl. When it doesn’t go as well as he expects, he starts to get a bad feeling about it. Around the same time, a mental patient at a local hospital throws herself off the roof, drawing her twin sister into a world of demons and visions. The sister is Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), a police detective with an uncanny sense for where to find the bad guys. She seeks out Constantine, hoping to get some help, but unfortunately first encounters him just after he’s received some very bad news. John Constantine is dying, his twenty-year pack-and-a-half-a-day habit having finally caught up with him. Fortunately, the case that she introduces him to (with the added sweetener of her own not-inconsiderable charms) is enough to distract him from his flailing attempts to wriggle out of his own doom, and he sets out to save the world one last time before he dies.
The plot, as fans will notice, is not from the series, although it manages to borrow elements from more than one classic Hellblazer story (most notably, John’s lung cancer is from Garth Ennis’ story arcs, Dangerous Habits and Son of Man). The characters all grossly deviate from their comic book counterparts: the infamously selfish Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou) has somehow become a champion of good and a defender of the Balance; Everyman cab driver Chas Chandler (Shia LaBeouf), more typically a grandfather, is now eighteen and John’s “apprentice”; and Lucifer, or Satan (Peter Stormare), has lost his pretty face, but has gained sole rulership of Hell and a son. John, of course, has changed the most, altering his hair color, nationality, and basic motivation. Oddly, they managed to get Gabriel, nicknamed The Snob in the comic, almost right, with Tilda Swinton showing his insane devotion to God and resentment of mankind for their gift of His forgiveness. (Swinton was an interesting choice for the role, bringing an androgyny that’s often associated with angels, but not with Gabriel in Hellblazer.)
Naturally, they pretty much butcher the cosmology as well. In the movie, God and the Devil have a bet going, and it’s part of the terms of the bet that neither can interfere directly; nor can proper demons or angels go to Earth, only the so-called “half-breeds,” the nature of which is never explained. This leads to a few plot holes, of course … Oh, and there’s more than a little confusion regarding the Catholic Church’s now-discarded rule about suicides and damnation.
Despite all of this, director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Capello somehow managed to bring the atmosphere and flavor of i>Hellblazer to the screen. The film is dark and gritty, with the emphasis on physical horror rather than psychological. The CG-animated demons and settings of Hell are, if not terrifying or as varied as the images from the books, at least disturbing-looking enough to give one pause before committing that last venial sin before bed. I was particularly pleased with the “Vermin Man” demon, composed entirely of bugs, snakes, crabs, and rats. Keeping closeups to a minimum in both duration and frequency helped with that one, since I have a feeling that the animation wouldn’t stand up to close examination. But it was a fun design.
The movie seems to draw on the pacing of a comic book story arc, too, with a new revelation every twenty minutes or so (roughly equivalent to once per issue). Settings are appropriately grimy or stark, and vary from a sterile hospital to a nightclub full of half-breed demons and angels to the area behind the pinsetters in a bowling alley. Cinematography is smooth and fast-paced, but makes certain to leave enough memorable still images to call to mind an action comic.
And, perhaps inevitably, one thing they got right about John was how many of his friends die in the course of a story.
Frustratingly, there were several moments that would have been pure John Constantine if the man on the screen had, in fact, been John. Tricking a demon into thinking that Last Rites, as performed by John, would send him to Heaven; telling Chas to move the car, but not how far; the way he extinguishes his last cigarette … all classic, true-to-character stuff. Except, of course, that I still can’t buy Reeves as Constantine. He couldn’t carry it off.
In all honesty, Constantine is a pretty good genre movie. It looks good, has an entertaining plot, colorful characters, and some nifty special effects. It’s two hours of mostly mindless entertainment. Any fan of occult horror films will probably like it — unless he or she happens to be a fan of Hellblazer.
(Warner Bros, 2005)