Released: 18 February 2005
Director: Francis Lawrence
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $70 to 100 million
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Shia LaBeouf, and Djimon Hounsou
Cynical exorcist John Constantine (Reeves) spends his days smoking and “deporting” demons to Hell in a desperate attempt to earn salvation before he dies from lung cancer. However, in begrudgingly helping troubled police detective Angela Dodson (Weisz) learn the truth about her twin sister’s death, he stumbles upon a much larger and darker plot to bring about the apocalypse.
Constantine is an adaptation of DC Comics’ popular cult comic series John Constantine, Hellblazer. Created by Alan Moore and Stephen R. Bissette and first appearing in the pages of The Saga of Swamp Thing #37 (Moore, et al, 1985) and visually inspired by British musician Sting, Constantine earned his own solo series in 1988 and became a popular anti-hero thanks to his grouchy demeanour and surreal occult misadventures and plans for a live-action adaptation of the character can be traced back as far as 1997. After passing through the hands of different directors and having a variety of actors attached to star, Constantine finally gained traction in 2002 but the title change wasn’t the only alteration the filmmakers made to the character: despite drawing inspiration from the “Dangerous Habits” storyline (Ennis, et al, 1991), the character was changed from a blond-haired, brown trenchcoat-wearing Liverpudlian conman to Keanu Reeves in a black coat with a cantankerous attitude. Despite this lack of fidelity to the source material, Constantine did relatively well at the box office, earning over $230 million; sadly, despite earning a well-deserved cult following over the years, the film was met with lukewarm reactions upon release, which has cast doubt over the chances for a sequel. As much as I enjoyed the later, unrelated Constantine series (2014 to 2015) and Matt Ryan’s remarkable turn in the role as part of the “Arrowverse”, I’ve always had a soft spot for Constantine and, considering that today is Keanu Reeves’ birthday, this seems like the perfect time to revisit this underrated gem.
While not a snarky, Liverpudlian conman, Constantine is a moody, blunt, egotistical prick through and through; he’s thoroughly unlikeable in many ways with his demanding and condescending attitude but, while he acts like he has no interest in the welfare and interests of others, Constantine goes out of his way to help those in need and to exorcise any demons that are brought to his attention. Of course, he only does this out of his own self-interests; slowly and painfully dying of inoperable lung cancer, he is determined to buy his way into Heaven by “deporting” any demons and spirits that violate the rules and try to cross over. Yet, he doesn’t appear to take payment for his actions and tries, in his own grouchy and irritable way, to keep those around him safe (primarily by pushing them away to keep his conscience clean but still…)
Though irritable and cantankerous, Constantine instantly recognises that something is amiss when a demon attempts to cross over to the living world and believes that something bigger and more threatening is coming as a result. He is disgusted when neither Good nor His God’s emissary, the Archangel Gabriel (Swinton), offer any assistance and resolves to sort the issue out by himself in his own sullen way. Constantine isn’t a man who suffers fools gladly and has no time for red tape, excuses, or time-wasters and, though he knows that he is destined to go to Hell for his sins, and to die from his habitual smoking, he nevertheless continues to oppose demons and angels alike as much as he continues to smoke.
Constantine’s investigations into this larger threat eventually cause him to cross paths with Angela, a cop who is haunted by her uncanny ability to sense where her targets are without even seeing them and tormented by the sudden apparent suicide of her twin sister, Isabel (also Weisz). Raised as a Catholic, Angela repeatedly repents for her actions as a cop and her conviction that her sister would never had killed herself leads her to Constantine, with whom she initially has a frosty relationship due to his rude and bitter nature. As the audience surrogate, we learn alongside Angela as Constantine exposits the “rules” of the wager between God and the Devil, Lucifer Morningstar (Peter Stormare), and take a dive through the nightmarish landscape of Hell itself. Angela is a tough and capable character with a real vulnerability to her; Isabel’s death clearly rattles her and there’s a definite sense that she’s way out of her element with all the supernatural mumbo-jumbo that follows Constantine and, yet, she repeatedly calls out his shit and holds her own and she only ends up in need of rescue because of her latent psychic abilities.
Constantine’s investigation is aided by a variety of his old allies; his constant companion is Chas Kramer (LaBeouf), here interpreted as a young and enthusiastic cab driver who is eager to be more involved with Constantine’s work and continually annoyed at the way he keeps him at arm’s length. Two more of Constantine’s allies, Beeman (Max Baker) and Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince) help him to piece together the puzzle of the looming threat because they genuinely believe in and care for Constantine. Papa Midnite (Hounsou), meanwhile, is a far more reluctant ally; operating a bar that is “neutral ground” for Heaven and Hell, he refuses to get involved or to favour one side or the other. As detestable as Constantine can be at times, it’s heart-breaking to see his friends and allies die purely by association with him and it really lends a sense of tragedy to the character as it’s easy to see why he keeps them at arm’s length and is the way he is as he “doesn’t need another ghost following [him] around”. One thing I also really like about Constantine is the suggestion that Constantine, Midnite, Beeman, and Hennessy were once this team of exorcists and demon hunters and I would have loved to see their past expanded upon more in a sequel or prequel.
A slight downside to Constantine is the lack of a tangible primary antagonist; Manuel (Jesse Ramirez) fulfils this role to a degree as, after finding and being possessed by the Spear of Destiny, he ominously makes his way towards Los Angeles as a constant reminder of the looming threat but he’s not an actual villain of the film and is quickly discarded once the finale kicks in. Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale) somewhat fulfils this role as a scheming, devious puppet master but, again, he’s more of a lingering threat rather than a central one and, for the most part, Constantine battles against various demons and denizens from Hell, such as the decomposing soldier demons and bat-like scavengers.
As a result, for most of the runtime, the mystery of the Spear of Destiny and the impending resurrection of Mammon, the son of the Devil, takes centre stage until the very end of the film, where it’s revealed that Gabriel has been conspiring with Mammon. It turns out that Gabriel is just as jaded and weary with humankind as Constantine is with Heaven and Hell; appalled that humanity is allowed the chance to repent, no matter what their sins, and believing that people should earn their place in Heaven through true suffering, Gabriel goes behind God’s back to bring Hell to Earth through Mammon. It’s definitely a twist, especially for Constantine, who would never have guessed that an angel and a demon would join forces, and renders all of his incantations and wit mute since Gabriel’s power is unmatched, forcing him to make the ultimate sacrifice to end their combined threat.
One thing Constantine definitely really has going for it is snark; Constantine has a dry, cynical wit and biting, abrasive tone at the best of times but it makes for some amusing moments, such as when he literally points Angela in the right direction and compares Chas to other famous sidekicks, and it seems he always has a snarky comment and sardonic response to everything happening around him. Despite this, and his demanding and patronising personality, Constantine inspires a great deal of awe and loyalty in those around him; Hennessy willingly communes with the dead and puts himself at risk even though it gives him horrible nightmares and leads to his death simply out of loyalty to Constantine and Beeman sums it up nicely, and emotionally, when, right before his own death, he tells Constantine that, despite his lack of faith, his friends have faith in him. Such is Constantine’s allure that he is able to convince reluctant middleman Midnite to get off the fence and help him (commenting that he (as in Midnite) is the “only one following the rules”) and, despite their rough start and Constantine’s abrasive nature, he builds a natural chemistry and rapport with Angela. Initially, she detests him and his rudeness but, the more she becomes exposed to his world and his beliefs, the more she comes to relate to and warm towards him. Their clear and obvious attraction is handled well and the two have great chemistry despite their conflicting personalities; they never truly consummate on this attraction, which is both surprising and frustrating since I just wanted to see them break that sexual tension.
Constantine’s approach to religion is largely based on Catholicism; rather than explore other religions or consolidate them into one, the idea seems to be that Catholicism sets the rules for this world and, as a result, suicides are condemned to Hell and repentance is the road to salvation. This simplifies matters considerably, but it does make one question how other religions fit into this world since we clearly see that Heaven, Hell, demons, angels, God, and the Devil are all real. This is best seen in Constantine’s frequent trips to Hell within the film, which is a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic mirror of our world populated by demons, tormented souls, and full of fire and suffering and even home to an extended version of the Bible. It turns out that travelling to Hell is incredibly easy and that all one has to do is die under the right circumstances for even the shortest length of time or simply sit in a bowl of water with a cat on your lap (though, to be fair, this appears to be a trick that only Constantine can pull off).
As far as I can tell, Keanu’s Constantine differs from his comic book counterpart in that he is one of the few born with the ability to see demons, angels, and the “half-breeds” that walk among the living; Angela and Isabel also have this ability but, while Angela suppressed it, Isabel was constantly haunted and driven to her death by it. The same thing happened to Constantine, forever damning him to Hell upon death and driving his mission to deport half-breeds from either side when they break the “rules”. Constantine’s sorcery and magicks are downplayed compared to the source material; while Constantine has various religious and spiritual tattoos to help ward off evil spirits and is able to bring Gabriel forth at the conclusion, he primarily relies on special weaponry and gadgets provided to him by Beeman. This makes him a far more action-orientated version of the character; whereas his comic book counterpart would trick his enemies into defeating themselves or con his way out of confrontations, Keanu’s Constantine beats Balthazar into submission with a Holy knuckle duster and loads up a shotgun that blasts dragon’s breath and Holy bullets.
Still, this is only really for one scene and, for the most part, Constantine is still more of a detective than a superhero; his methods involve a degree of preparation but he’s also able to think on the fly and use whatever he has around or on him to ward off demons (such as when he amusingly threatens Balthazar not with being deported to Hell but by reading him his last rites!) In the finale, when faced with Gabriel’s Holy power and Mammon’s inevitable resurrection, he performs the ultimate con, however, by slitting his wrists and bringing Lucifer to Earth to personally collect his soul. In the process, he’s able to bargain for the release of Isabel’s soul and is fully prepared to die and take her place in Hell, only to be lifted towards the Golden Gates of Heaven because of his selfless act. This results in one of the greatest moments in the film when Constantine flips Lucifer the middle finger as he slowly ascends to Heaven, which I always find to be incredibly in-character and enjoyable. Ultimately, though, Lucifer heals Constantine of his cancer and allows him not only to live but also gives him the chance to earn his place in Heaven; while it’s clear that Lucifer believes that Constantine won’t be able to change his cynical ways or contemptible personality, the film ends with him swapping cigarettes for gum and sardonically commenting that, after dying twice, he has come to believe that God truly does have a plan for everyone.
Going into Constantine, I had pretty much no knowledge of the comic book, so this was my first introduction to the character. Instead, I went in as a fan of Keanu Reeves and supernatural films and, as a result, was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. Even now, as big a fan as I am of the character and Matt Ryan’s work, my experience with Hellblazer is pretty much limited to the character’s sporadic adaptations and the Original Sin (Delano, et al, 1993) graphic novel but, even so, it was this film that first made me aware of and spurred my interest in the character. As a result, if you’re unfamiliar with Constantine, I’d highly recommend this as your first exposure to the character; long-time fans of Hellblazer may have been disappointed by the many changes but, even as a Brit myself, I still really enjoy this movie for what it is: a supernatural action/horror film. There’s a lot to like here, from Keanu’s cynical portrayal of the character and his dry, bitter wit and cool, undeniable charisma to a striking and suitably terrifying interpretation of Hell and a pretty fantastic turn by Stormare as Lucifer. Obviously, Matt Ryan has delivered a far more faithful rendition of the character in the years since but, as an Americanised version of a notable British character, I think the film does really well at staying true to the spirit of Constantine and his comic books and I would definitely recommend this to anyone remotely interested in the concept.
Are you a fan of Constantine? What did you think of the film’s concept and characters, especially Keanu’s performance? Have you ever read the Hellblazer comics? If so, what are some of your favourite stories and moments from Constantine’s history and how do you think Constantine holds up as an adaptation? Were you put off by the Americanisation of the character and, if so, do you prefer Matt Ryan’s portrayal? Would you have liked to see a sequel or Keanu return to the character in some way? How are you celebrating Keanu Reeves’ birthday today and what are some of your favourite roles of his? Whatever you think, go ahead and leave a comment down below.