From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog: Movie Review: Constantine

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Movie Review: Constantine

Constantine (2004) Director - Francis Lawrence; Starring - Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Gavin Rossdale, Tilda Swinton; Screenplay - Kevin Brodbin & Frank Capello, from story by Kevin Brodbin. Based on the comic book Hellblazer written by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis; Rated R for violence, language, and adult themes; trailer here.

If the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions, that road intersects somewhere near Hollywood and Vine or wherever the Warner Brothers Studio offices are located.

Keanu Reeves is John Constantine, a man with the unique gift to see that angels and demons walk amongst us. These celestial beings are part of an ongoing bet between God and Lucifer for the souls of all mankind. Angels and demons can influence us towards an end of good or evil. When one of these beings acts directly to tilt the balance, Constantine steps in and "deports" the being to their respective plane.

Constantine does this not out of any sense of altruism or interest in the outcome. His only concern is an attempt to try and offset a debt accrued from a dark secret he holds within himself. His time to balance the books is running out.

Enter Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz). A police detective searching for answers to the apparent suicide of her twin sister Isabel, Dodson is convinced there's a occult connection to Isabel's demise. She hopes to be proven right and not only punish the offenders but also gain the right to have her sister buried in consecrated ground, a right denied her as a devout Catholic who committed suicide. Her path and Constantine's cross in a manner that sheds light on a larger conflict that may hold the fate of the world in the balance.

This movie is loosely based on the comic book series Hellblazer, originally created I believe by Alan Moore, and written by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis. I say loosely based in the sense that the main character bears the same name in both incarnations. That's about where the similarities begin and end. This leads to a serious quibble of mine, but I need to focus on the film itself before getting off on this tangent.

The movie has a lot going for it, much to my disbelief. Though I was not a reader of the comic source material, I knew enough of it to know that casting Keanu was as wrong a read on Constantine as you can get. Despite that setback, on its own merits Keanu's Constantine actually works pretty well. He's portrayed as a man who's not necessarily haunted by his past mistakes as much as frustrated by the fact he can't quite seem to put them to bed. This falls within Reeve's limited wheelhouse as an actor. Despite how the trailer and ads may have tried to set the audience's expectations, this is not a Matrix type of movie and it works in that respect because it's earnestly trying to find its own niche as a film. Reeves does a commendable job of helping set that different bar to clear.

Weisz is an actress who I'm only familiar with through her work in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. Her Evelyn in those movies is a stock action movie heroine, little bit tough and smart, but still very feminine. Here she's portrayed as the haunted figure in a fashion much more so than Constantine. There's not enough backstory filled in to give it much weight and so much of the movie is just spent with her looking very somber and speaking in hushed tones. There's a part of my brain that imagines her police work must have been undercover work acting as a faux goth girl that never quite pulls it off. There's also a few too many convenient coincidences tied to her character's knowledge and/or actions that stretch credulity in my eyes. Still, she's not awful and the hushed tones lent a throaty sexiness to her voice that earned her some leeway from me. Nothing to write home about but nothing to make your teeth itch either.

The story itself is actually engaging despite some of its flaws. As the various plot devices bring the audience closer to the revelation of how Angela and Constantine's fates are intertwined, there are several original ideas that are executed well. Hell as a concept is presented in a way that had me intrigued and wanting more exposition on how it interplays with the "real" world. Having read some of the companion titles to Hellblazer under the Vertigo umbrella at DC (notably Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, and Alan Moore's reimagining of Swamp Thing) I think the film version of Hell does the comic on justice. The production design for the sets helps set the mood well in a number of scenes. And the climax of the story played out in a way that I found reasonable and satisfying for the most part.

The weaknesses leads me to the gripes I mentioned earlier.

  1. There's a few too many concessions to "studio thinking" towards the last third of the movie, particularly in the big resolve. I sat there and could hear a studio exec at Warner Brothers saying "We need more action, or this thing is never going to sell." My hope is that there's a nice cozy corner of development hell for this person where they're forced to watch some action movie abomination like Con Air for all eternity to atone for their sins.
  2. Related to this first complaint, if you're going to force an action sequence on the audience after giving them a fair mystery/occult suspense film up to that point, please do not crib it so blatantly from another movie. If I wanted to see Blade, I would have stayed home and popped the DVD in.
  3. The voice over and final scene need to go. Just too cheesy for words. The movie could have ended five minutes prior and been perfectly good. We know you're going to do a sequel if the box office is good. You don't need to shove it in our face to set up your franchise.
The biggest complaint of them all centers on the decision to call this Constantine and connect it to Hellblazer. Reportedly Alan Moore requested his name be pulled from the credits (which would have been for creation of the characters), though as this post on Neil Gaiman's blog shows, that was really more of a tempest in a teacup and related to something else entirely. However, John Constantine in the books was in no particular order:
  • British
  • living in London
  • modeled physically after Sting
These things Keanu and his Constantine are most decidedly not. According to the trivia notes on, this script didn't get any attention from producers until the character was moved to LA and made an American. So if it's not really who the character is, where he's from, and what he's about in relation to the source material that makes the movie viable, why in the hell (no pun intended) do you even keep the name and the connection? Why not tweak it enough to try and make it a wholly original enterprise?

You could have just as easily named the character....Chuck LeMane (think about that one) and the movie would have been essentially the same, and retained about the same level of connection to Hellblazer: virtually zero. It's not as though we're talking about throngs of comic geek fans who are going to turn out for this movie in repeated droves making this movie a commercial success. Constantine is not, has never been, and will never be Batman, Superman, or any of the other DC staples. The negative press connected to the changes from the source material, even if overblown, only hurt the effort to get people to turn out without providing nearly enough positive to offset it to really make a difference.

This is a good movie. Not a great one, but nothing that's going to make you want to claw your eyes out afterwards. It should have been celebrated on its own merits, not lamely piggybacked off of pretty much unrelated source material to lend it some sort of "credibility"..

Give it a look and enjoy it for what it offers. With all its blemishes, you can do a lot worse right now with what's out there in theaters presently. It'll let you kill time until April 1.

PS: if you've read Hellblazer, and can explain to me how the movie DOES in fact connect with the source material, I'd appreciate the help understanding.