The character of John Constantine began life as a supporting cast member of DC Comics’ Saga of the Swamp Thing series, in the mid-80s. Created by Alan Moore at the behest of Swamp Thing artists Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and Rick Veitch, the trench-coated, chain-smoking, cynical magician would become popular enough to merit his own solo series – Hellblazer – in 1988.
In 2005, Constantine made the transition to film, with an adaptation directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Keanu Reeves in the lead role. Casting American brunette Reeves as the very blonde and British occult detective was a significant departure from the source material. The screenplay, written by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, was roughly based on Jamie Delano’s Original Sins and Garth Ennis’ Dangerous Habits storylines in the Hellblazer comic book.
“Constanteen” not “Constantyne” …
Right off the bat, it’s clear that this movie was fashioned to be an American superhero movie of the mid-2000s. Thus, the lead character deviated from the comics in that respect. But to be fair, as written, Reeves’ Constantine remained a jaded anti-hero if somewhat sanitised for mainstream audiences. Unfortunately, too many super-heroic action elements were awkwardly infused into the movie, with the cross-shaped gun one of the many ridiculous concessions to the genre.
Even though the supporting cast – Rachel Weisz (Angela) and Shia LaBeouf (Chas) – were mostly superficial and largely forgettable, the cameo appearances of Peter Stormare (Lucifer) and Tilda Swinton (Gabriel) were juicy enough to keep things interesting.
In the comic books, John Constantine never ever learns anything from his experiences, but by this movie’s end, he is shown giving up his smoking habit, an annoying nod to a politically correct character arc! Boo!
Not suitable for discerning adults …
If nothing else, at least we can say that the plot is consistent with this characterisation of Constantine as a magical superhero. Tacked onto the storyline of Constantine dying of lung cancer (lifted from Dangerous Habits) is the over-arching plot of Constantine seeking redemption from his mortal sin of a past suicide attempt in order to be afforded entry into heaven.
And oh yes, the prevention of Mammon (Satan’s son) unleashing hell on earth via the fabled Spear of Destiny delivers the obligatory end of the world cliché. Ho hum. The writers ‘cleverly’ merge both story ideas into a happy ending for Constantine, without any real price paid by any of the characters, except maybe Gabriel and … Chas? (Though the post credits scene – three years before Iron Man – suggests otherwise).
No horror please, we’re Americans …
As mentioned above, the movie is pitched for the mainstream superhero audience of the early 2000s, and thus the horror aspects – although conceptually front and centre – are virtually non-existent. The tone is surreal not frightening with the narrative style very straight-forward. Visually though, Constantine is a treat with several scenes leaping off the screen – like the one where Angela is pulled through the building and into the night sky, with Constantine in hot pursuit and the evocation of the hellscape.
Dark entries, light exits …
Overall, Constantine made sense for the time it was produced i.e. the mid-2000s. I remember initially balking at Reeves’ casting but he did his job best he could, considering the way Constantine was written. Ironically, Reeves’ portrayal of the character is actually more accurate than the subsequent CW TV adaptations with British actor Matt Ryan!
In hindsight, considering how John Constantine is presented in 2020 – in the comics, in animated movies and live-action TV, he is no longer that character we knew and loved back in the 80s/90s. The real life horror elements have been diluted beyond recognition and Constantine is now a run-of-the-mill superhero with magical powers. DC sucking hard as usual.
In the final analysis, Constantine is an enjoyable movie even for diehard fans of the original Hellblazer comic book. Worth watching probably as the ONLY adaptation that comes closest to to the OG comic book Hellblazer.
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