DC Comics adaptations are in crisis. With the recent cancellation of Batgirl, even movies that are fully filmed are getting canned. There are no sacred cows here to WB Discovery. When was the last time we heard news on a Superman-related project? Amidst all this internal strife, a highly unusual project slipped through the cracks: a sequel to Constantine. Yes, the 2005 Keanu Reeves star vehicle loosely based on the character of John Constantine and his exploits. It dumbfounded me, but reactions on social media were bizarrely positive.
This didn’t track. For years, I’d seen Constantine as the kind of in-name-only adaptation that helped dilute the market. Being online in the late 00s-10s in geek communities meant you heard a lot of complaining about (at the time disliked, funny enough) Reeves being miscast and the movie barely taking inspiration from the source material. The type of generic-looking softball pairing of action and horror that plays well in any cable line-up. Time is a funny thing, however. Recently, honest-to-God Constantine fans are springing up who praise the movie for its supernatural imagination. The time had finally come to venture beyond the generic “Keanu Reeves with angel wings” cover to see what was underneath.
John Constantine (Reeves) is a sarcastic exorcist whose days are numbered due to his chain smoking. Constantine released in a post-The Matrix trilogy environment where Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with Reeves. This role gives him a tough edge to play with and fits his stoic, serious demeanor. It’s not an outwardly bad adaptation, either. He’s not blonde or British but he has the soul of the sardonic demon hunter we’ve come to know and love over the years. The plotline follows his attempt to help Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), an LAPD detective who lost her twin sister under mysterious circumstances. Their investigation takes them into the belly of the beast, acting as pawns in the ongoing battle between Heaven and Hell.
Trying to describe the plot in more specific terms is a fool’s errand. Screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Capello can’t put together a cohesive narrative to save their lives. Trying to figure out the why of any event happening is like pulling teeth. Constantine gets so muddled throughout that it may as well be a series of short films. A possible explanation could be the rough nature of adapting comics to film, but that doesn’t quite track since the film bears so little resemblance to actual storylines from the Hellblazer comics on which it’s ostensibly based. At the end of the day, a weak story is a weak story. As a series of action-horror vignettes, though, Constantine kind of rocks.
Director Francis Lawrence made his feature debut with this film, but you wouldn’t know it based on his work here. Constantine looks and feels stellar. Somehow, Lawrence and director of photography Phillippe Rousselot make the darkness look vibrant. Scenes resemble the austere iconoclasm of Christian art. An opening sequence where Constantine catches a demon in the mirror rattles with manic energy, while Constantine paying a visit to Hell by soaking his shoes in water and looking into a cat’s eye is a wonderfully strange dive into the surreal. Each little scenario brims with the peak of mid-2000s grungy excess. Whatever lies around the corner for Constantine, you can expect it to entertain and look fantastic.
Diverting from the comics’ pre-established storyline turns out to be a boon. Lawrence and company’s take on the forces of light and darkness is downright unique. Tilda Swinton’s angel Gabriel is a fun, borderline pretentious frenemy for Constantine and there should’ve been more of them, while Peter Stormare’s scrumptiously disgusting Devil is the essence of decay, becoming one of the more memorable cinematic incarnations. Then there’s the Half-Breeds, human/demon or human/angel hybrids who hang out in a neon red nightclub blaring tunes from A Perfect Circle. Rad. Constantine nails its world-building. Meeting a new denizen of Hell is a treat, especially when Constantine is killing them good. Try not to shout “Hell Yeah!” during a third-act sequence where he blows apart a wave of demons using holy water as an aid.
Given all its virtues, Constantine is a worthy watch, just not as great as it could’ve been. The connective tissue between each standalone adventure is mostly weak. Supporting characters like Constantine’s assistant Chas (Shia LaBeouf) and Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince) don’t inspire much interest, and our secondary protagonist played by Weisz is straight-up boring. Nevertheless, there’s far more good than not here. Constantine may not be the most obvious candidate for a sequel, but it provides at the very least an interesting foundation. – James Preston Poole
Constantine is now available to stream on HBO Max, Netflix, and to own on home video and digital HD.