Like the Matrix but with Demons and Stuff
It's interesting going back and seeing some of the failed attempts to create superhero film franchises. We just talked about Hulk, the Marvel/Universal attempt to bring the big, green monsters to the big screen, but while Marvel was struggling mightily to get anything working with a number of its characters (after the success of Fox's X-MenLaunched in 1963 and written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men featured heroes distinctly different from those featured in the pages of DC Comics. Mutants who didn't ask for their powers (and very often didn't want them), these heroes, who constantly fought against humans who didn't want "muties" around, served as metaphors for oppression and racism. Their powerful stories would form this group into one of the most recognizable superhero teams in comics (and a successful series of movies as well). and Sony's SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002.), DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s. were having their own struggles as well. We were still a few months out from Batman Begins and the character DC pinned hopes on wasn't SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. or Wonder WomanLong considered the third pillar of the DC Comics "Trinity", Wonder Woman was one of the first female superheroes ever created. Running for as long as Batman or Superman (and without breaks despite a comic downturn in the 60s that killed superhero comics for about a decade), Wondie has the honor to be one of the longest serving, and most prolific, superheroes ever. but, of all people, John Constantine.
If you're not a comic book geek but are somehow familiar with the character that's probably because you watch Legends of Tomorrow over on the ArrowverseWhen it was announced that the CW was creating a show based on the Green Arrow, people laughed. The CW? Really? Was it going to be teen-oriented like everything else on the network and be called "Arrow High"? And yet that one show, Arrow has spawned three spin-offs, various related shows and given DC a successful shared universe, the Arrowverse on TV and streaming.. That series has done a lot to bring the character to the forefront, but back in 2005 the character didn't have anything like the profile of DC's A- or B-list characters. Hell, his movie wasn't even named after his comic series, Hellblazer but, instead, given the generic name of Constantine, and, for fans of the character, that was just the first of the unforgivable sins the movie committed.
And yet, while this film has gone down as a failure among fans, with everyone saying, "oh, it bombed at the Box Office", it actually wasn't the cinematic disaster it's remembered as. Yes, DC spent a stupid amount of money making the film -- $200-plus Million -- but they recouped nearly double that when the film was in theaters. It might not have been an Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. smash-hit (a thing that didn't even exist at the time) but it made steady enough bank that, even now, DC talks about maybe bringing back this version of the character in another film (if the rumors that keep circulating are true).
The film gives us a very American version of John Constatine, played by Keanu Reeves. He lives and works in L.A. (not England), speaks with an American accent (which, frankly, is for the best as Keanu should never do accents), and sits around most of the time drinking and smoking. He's not the charismatic force he's usually depicted as in other works, and he doesn't even wear his trademark brown trenchcoat (instead going for a very The MatrixA speculative future story with superhero and anime influences, The Matrix not only pushed viewers to think about the nature of their own reality but also expanded what filmmakers could do with action sequences and filming. It then launched a series of movies, games, and comics, creating a franchise still talked about today.-style all-black ensemble. But in motives and intent, this is John Constatine through and through. He goes around, searching for demons, and then deports them back to Hell all to help keep the "balance" between good and evil on Earth and, hopefully, earn a ticket into Heaven when he dies (which he will, before too long, as he has aggresive lung cancer after smoking multiple packs a day for decades).
After sending a soldier demon back to Hell (something that shouldn't have been able to come to Earth as soldiers and other full-fledged demos have to stay in Hell as part of the "balance"), John starts to suspect there might be something more going on. This leads him to Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), an L.A. police detective who's investigating the death of her twin sister, Isabel. Her twin apparently committed suicide but, being a devout Catholic, that would have condemned her soul to Hell, so Angela has doubts. As the two work together they find that things go much deeper, with demons trying to invade Earth, the ancient Spear of Destiny acting as a key, and the Devil's own Son, Mammon, seeking a way to break through to Earth. And the only person that can stop it all is John.
From one perspective and I can understand how Hellblazer fans would be upset over this version of their beloved character. Reeves's version of Constantine is far removed in attitude and style from the version in comics. All that punk rock swagger, the charisma and sexual force that comes from the comics version is missing here. This Constantine filtered through Reeves's own Neo in The Matrix, a lone hero that can see the world for what it really is and is fighting against the agents of an evil power from a world beyond what human's can perceive. Considering this film came out two years after The Matrix Revolutions, also produced for Waner Bros., its no surprise that everyone involved wanted to treat this as a kind of extension of that franchise.
And yet while this film doesn't feel at all connected to the Hellblazer version of John Constantine, the film does have its own charms. It has it own sense of its world, crafting realms of demons and angels and the mortal plane caught between them. Considering the source material it had at its disposal, the film is able to convery a depth of its world, about so much inspoken backstory and detail, with only the smallest amount of that background making its way out in script. It had depth, a richness that comes through, with the film constantly dropping little tidbits without spending forever on long explanations about everything. It's very wisely crafted and smartly put together in that regard.
WHile Keanu gets shit for being a terrible actor, his version of Constantine is compelling. Yes, he's not the over-the-top charismatic fiend from the comics (and from his later depiction in the hands of actor Matt Ryan). This is a version of the characters filtered through Keanu's reserved acting style (very similar in vein to his later John Wick). There are glimmers of a charismatic character lurking beneath the surface, as is Keanu's style, but this is a reserved, controlled, angry performance. Differnet from the comics, yes, but interesting in its own way.
To the film's credit, Keanu's Constantine does have sexual tension with his co-lead, Weisz's Angela. The film constantly hints at what could be between them, with longing stares and close in brushes that could be kisses but then aren't. Again, that's not like the comics' character whoe would (and has) slept with anyone (and anything), but it does make for a compelling, and often time amusing, central relationship between this duo. Yes, I'm sure the comics fans want them to just get it over with an fuck already, but within the confines of this movie I like the way this central relationship is handled. The female lead didn't have to be reduced to just a love interest as the film had other things for the two leads to do.
Really, about the only part of the film I don't care about at this point is the CGI. The demons, and the hellscapes they populate, have not aged all that well fifteen years later, such that most of the time when Constantine is in Hell it just looks like Keanu running against a green screen. There is plenty of solid action on Earth, and good moments between the demons and Keanu, but when it comes to creating villains in full CGI, or having Keanu act against a fake backdrop, the sense of reality falls apart.
That's a minor quibble, though, all things considered. FOr the most part this film is able to craft it's own version of the character and give him an interesting and rich world to populate. Sure, it might not be a version of the world, or the character, fans were expecting from the comics. Taken on its own merits, though, Constantine is a solid adventure tale about Hell, Heaven, and the guy caught in the middle. If Warner Bros. ever decides to make another film for Keanu's hero I'd watch it. And, considering the cult following that's slowly built up for this film in the last fifteen years since its release, I don't think I'd be the only one.