REVIEW—CONSTANTINE: A surprisingly good movie!

Figure 1 – John Constantine ©2007 by Glenn Fabry
Figure 1 – John Constantine ©2007 by Glenn Fabry

The other night I caught a bit of AMC’s viewing (I suppose part of their Halloween celebration) of the ten-year-old movie Constantine, starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz. Now, I’m not a reader—haven’t really even read one issue—of Hellblazer, the DC/Vertigo comic that John Constantine stars in, but I’ve been vaguely aware of him, especially since this movie came out. I didn’t see the movie in a theatre; rather, it was one of a group of bootlegs and preview discs (if memory serves) I bought at a local flea market about eight years ago. You can often find studio pre-releases for like $2; I usually don’t buy bootlegs, but this was part of a cheap group of B-movie discs and this was included. (The studio discs usually end up being less than B-movie quality in both writing and execution, but occasionally there’s a gem. In this case, the gem was the bootleg. I later replaced it with an actual bought DVD. I tend not to keep bootlegs unless the real thing is unobtainable.)

Although Constantine has his own book now (I think the term “comic book” is kind of unsuitable for these kinds of things, but they’re in traditional comic book format, so “graphic novel” doesn’t seem to fit either. So I’ll just call ‘em “books” and let it go at that.), he originally showed up first as a character in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (#37, 1985, Figure 2). According to the Sequart Organization’s Andrew Edwards, Moore had been working very closely with his art team, allowing them to make suggestions on the script. Edwards says that John Totleben and Stephen Bissette had long wanted to put Sting, the lead singer of The Police, into a comic, and out of that suggestion—although a Sting-like character (perhaps Constantine himself) appeared in a cameo in Swamp Thing #25, Moore came up with a full-fledged John Constantine character for #37. Parts of Constantine’s character were drawn from Moore’s own character; the magician part especially—later, Alan Moore was to express a desire to become a magician, and parts from Sting’s public persona: the blond, unruly hair and the face in particular (although changed to not look precisely like the singer/actor’s). In 1988, DC comics began publishing Hellblazer, although the title had to be changed slightly from their original concept, “Hellraiser,” because of the debut of the Clive Barker movie series—even though the Barker series was totally unrelated.

Figure 2 - Swamp Thing 37
Figure 2 – Swamp Thing 37

In 1993, DC debuted its Vertigo imprint, which was for more adult, edgier titles presumed not to be suitable for the under-14 crowd. Because Constantine’s persona—and the situations he was found in—was a bit too adult for DC, his book was moved to the Vertigo imprint. The Hellblazer series proved popular, although Moore was not tapped to continue with the character he had created; initially, the writer/artist combo consisted of Jamie Delano and John Ridgway, though over the years many writers and artists have worked on it.

When the character was tapped for the movies, a few big changes were made; probably to increase the potential audience. Popular actor Keanu Reeves was selected as John Constantine—although as demonstrated by his disastrous attempt in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula movie, where he played Jonathan Harker, he couldn’t do any kind of a convincing British accent—so the setting was moved from Britain to Los Angeles (that’s purely my supposition; nobody has officially commented on that). Keanu’s patented non-acting style was perfect for the moody, self-involved chain-smoking character in this film. They tried—or at least thought about—bleaching his hair to go along with the book’s look, but in the end settled for making his dark hair somewhat unruly; the brown trenchcoat was also discarded because it just didn’t seem to go with Keanu’s look (this was verified in the DVD’s “extras”), and Chas Chandler (Constantine’s best friend) became Chas Kramer, Constantine’s young taxi-driving sidekick—played extremely well in this movie by Shia LeBoeuf, an actor I have little regard for, either as actor or public persona. Interestingly enough, the Hellblazer series was ended in April of this year with issue 300, and a new series (part of DC’s “New 52”), called Constantine: The Hellblazer, written/drawn by Ming Doyle and Riley Rossmo, debuted in June. I was unaware of all this stuff when I first popped the DVD into my PS3.

Figure 3 - Constantine poster
Figure 3 – Constantine poster

WARNING: Although this movie is a decade old, I will try not to use spoilers—but SPOILERS MAY BE AHEAD! Major spoilers will be labeled and put at the end of the review, if I need to do any.

The first thing I saw—and it interested me a lot—was the Warner Brothers logo, which started to break up and erode, streaming to the right; the same thing happened to the two successive logos, Village Roadshow and Vertigo comics. This was very good CGI for 2005 (and I might point out that this movie is a near-perfect example—the one exception I will talk about later—of how to use CGI in a movie. Although every single piece of CGI we see is a showpiece, the CGI is there to serve and support the movie and never—even when you really, really want it to—takes over and becomes the reason for the movie). Then an unattributed quote: “Whoever holds the Spear of Destiny holds the world in his hands,” and the words “The Spear of Destiny has been missing since 1945.” And then there was a fade-in to a desert in Mexico, where two men are listlessly scratching at the dirt, one feels, to see if there’s any scrap or trash under a broken and disused cement shell of a building, a church, to sell. One of them, Manuel (Jesse Ramirez), breaks through the floorboards under the dirt to a hidden recess; when he reaches into this recess, he comes up with something wrapped in a Nazi flag. He unfolds the flag and we see the spearhead of the Spear of Destiny for the first time. He immediately starts walking towards LA. There’s a terrific scene part CGI, part practical, as he crosses the highway, which I won’t spoil for you.

The scene cuts to Los Angeles, where we hear a kettle whistling; a Hispanic woman is fixing a cup of tea; she takes the cup to another room where—as soon as she opens the door she drops the cup, then drops to the floor herself, crossing herself and yelling something like Madre de Dios! (Mother of God!) The camera swings around and we see, through the crack of the open door, a young woman upside down in a corner of the room beyond, crouched on the ceiling, hissing like a snake and looking demented. A yellow taxi (marked “City of Angels Taxi”) pulls up, and an arm in a black trench coat extends out a window and drops a half-smoked cigarette. We see John Constantine for the first time as he enters an older brick building (LA’s version of The Projects?) with a nicely patterned tile foyer; a TV playing some cartoon. There is a hulking man in a stained and rumpled greenish trenchcoat lurking behind a pillar; he comes out and says “I think I got you one, John.” It is Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vance, who was in The Mentalist, and now is in Heroes Reborn on TV), an exorcist. He tells Constantine that as soon as he realized he was “unable to pull it out,” he called John for help. Constantine lights another cigarette and heads upstairs.

This scene is important; it highlights three major characters: Constantine himself; Chas Kramer (pronounced “Chaz,” by the way) and Father Hennessy, who seems unaffiliated with any particular church, but who himself seems psychic—and who will play an important role in this film. We learn that John is an exorcist and demon hunter of no mean ability—he pulls a demon out of a young girl (“The name is Constantine; John Constantine, asshole!” he tells the demon.). Chas wants to be what John is (to the extent of practicing his own lines in his taxi—Constantine relegates him to the role of sidekick, refusing to teach him, though Chas obviously studies on his own—repeating “This is Kramer, Chas Kramer, asshole.” Chas takes Constantine back to John’s own apartment, which is above a bowling alley, all the while pleading with John for training.

Next scene, we see a young woman in a nightgown on a bed, with a cat; this is Isabel Dodson (Rachel Weisz). She suddenly runs out of her apartment and up some stairs and ultimately to a roof—we are looking through a security camera on the roof; she looks wildly around as if being pursued, but we see no pursuer. At the edge of the roof she pauses, pulls a hospital band off her right wrist—under it is a tattoo of a circle bisected by a cross, and lets it go into the wind before she leaps off the roof; falling, she crosses her arms over her chest and falls with her face upward, looking rather beatific, as if she had finally found peace, until she hits with a shattering of glass and a large “sploomph!” of water.

I’m not going to give you a scene-by-scene replay of the movie; the above paragraphs were to set up the main characters. There are several more important characters (in no particular order): Angela Dodson, a cop and twin sister to Isabel, played by Rachel Weisz; Balthazar (a demon), played by Gavin Rossdale; Gabriel (an angel, but not the archangel), played by Tilda Swinton; Papa Midnite, bar owner—“Switzerland” for LA’s halfbreeds (part angels and demons), played by Djimon Hounsou; Beeman, Constantine’s “technical expert” and collector of bugs, played by Max Baker; and finally, Lucifer, ruler of Hell, played to the absolute hilt by Peter Stormare.

Figure 4 - Constantine and Angela
Figure 4 – Constantine and Angela

We learn that God (who doesn’t make an appearance here; is present in one scene just by inference) and The Devil (Stormare) have made a wager and a pact: neither one can directly interfere in human affairs; instead they send emissaries (referred to as “half-breeds” by Constantine), part human and part angel or demon, to “whisper in human ears” and indirectly influence humans. Angels and devils/demons are forbidden from directly appearing on Earth or taking a direct hand.

These “half-breeds” present a completely human face to the world; only certain psychics, like Constantine, can see what lies beneath. When he was a young man, he told his parents of the things he was seeing, which led them to send him first to psychologists, then for shock treatment. He was so affected, and so terrified, that he slit his wrists and died for two minutes, then was revived because he killed himself in a hospital. But killing yourself is—according to this movie—a Mortal Sin, and you are condemned to Hell for eternity for doing that, so Constantine became a demon hunter, “deporting” these half-demons in hopes that he will buy back his soul and be allowed into Heaven. (Gabriel tells him that this won’t work; he’s doing this work for selfish reasons only, and God only rewards things like belief, self-sacrifice and so on. “I believe,” he tells Gabriel. “No, John, you know. That is entirely separate from belief,” Gabriel says, “You’re f*cked, John.” By the way, I was unfamiliar with Tilda Swinton, who plays Gabriel as a person of indeterminate gender—androgynous—before seeing this movie. Her performance was so good, I have followed her ever since. She is a major actor, even if the world doesn’t acknowledge her as a major star, since she favours “Indy” films.)

Meantime, Isabel refuses to admit that her sister killed herself, averring that she wouldn’t do it “in a million years,” because as a devout Catholic, she knew she would be condemned to Hell. (By the way, as a “devout” atheist, I did a bit of research, and the Catholic church appears to disavow this view. Apparently there was a time in the ‘50s when priests were allowed to tell their parishioners they’d “go to Hell” for committing Mortal Sins, but that, according to modern doctrine—at least all I could find online—no longer applies. To commit a Mortal Sin requires that you do it of your free will, and the Church now thinks people who kill themselves aren’t really in their right mind, and therefore are not doing it freely. Ah, religion….) She begins to investigate and soon runs into Constantine, who isn’t at all interested in helping her. When she is attacked—totally contrary to The Pact—by a pack of flying demons just outside his apartment, he becomes curious and agrees to help her.

The rest of the movie consists of Constantine first finding out that Angela and Isabel were twin sisters, then that they were both psychic—except that when she was young, Angela disavowed her own abilities, not even backing up her sister when their parents wanted to put her away. In time, she repressed those abilities almost entirely. Constantine helps her rediscover her own psychic side. The scene where Constantine submerges Angela in the bathtub, refusing to let her up even when she was fighting for air, is a terrific piece of acting by Rachel Weisz. She waits, head under water, for something to happen, then realizes she’s running out of oxygen. When she realizes John isn’t going to let her up (“How long will I be under water?” she asks him. “As long as it takes,” John tells her), she panics and thrashes, fighting. Several times, we are given a glimpse of Hell, both when Isabel dies, then when Constantine visits to find out why (Figure 5).

The only scene in this whole movie that left me cold was the one where John was attacked on the street during a coughing fit (he is dying of cancer—he has smoked thirty cigarettes a day for years) by a street person composed entirely of bugs, rats, snakes and crabs. First of all, it was hard to make out what was happening; secondly it was one of those incidences I decry of CGI for its own sake. The CGI version of Hell—in Los Angeles, it’s a freeway—as a place that is hot and constantly eroding from the heat and burning winds, complete with demons that have no brains—is as brilliant as the former scene wasn’t.

Figure 5 - Constantine in Hell ©2005 Warner Brothers
Figure 5 – Constantine in Hell ©2005 Warner Brothers

Spoiler-free ending: Eventually, Angela finds out why her sister killed herself, Constantine avenges some friends of his who were killed by a half-breed and discovers a major plot to break The Pact—then resolves it—and he and Angela part as friends. Constantine gives up smoking. If you want a bit more information—including some spoilers—then read the next paragraph; if you don’t, skip the next couple of paragraphs.

SPOILER ENDING: Balthazar, a half-demon, is assisting Mammon—who is the Son of Satan—in his quest to take over Earth as his own domain. Lucifer plans to give Earth to Mammon when he retires, but Mammon doesn’t want to wait. All Mammon needs is a psychic—the main reason Isabel had killed herself was to avoid becoming that psychic—the Spear of Destiny, and “assistance from Heaven.” (All this was found out by Beeman, and told to John over the radio, before Balthazar kills Beeman.) Balthazar had previously killed Father Hennessy in a very clever fashion—by keeping him from ingesting any liquids but then letting him drown from the inside out in those same liquids (Hennessy’s liquids of choice are liquors) because Hennessy had seen the tattoo on Isabel’s wrist—the same one that had appeared on Manuel’s wrist when the demon took him over as soon as he touched the Spear of Destiny); Father Hennessy, before he died, managed to carve that symbol into his own hand. Balthazar had killed Beeman, not realizing he had already given Constantine the information he needed. Constantine kills (“deports” back to Hell) Balthazar, but Angela is taken. Manuel arrives in LA with the Spear, and it all comes together for Constantine: he realizes who’s behind the plot from Heaven’s side. “Gabriel!” he says.

SPOILER, CONTINUED: In the same hospital Isabel died in, Mammon takes over Angela, and Chas is killed by something unseen. Constantine—using special tattoos on his forearms—summons Gabriel from hiding. Gabriel explains that humans are the only beings in the entire universe that God loves so much that he gave them free will, allowing them to choose whether they enter Heaven or Hell. He also tells Constantine that humans are squandering God’s gift, and since we only show our true colours when faced with adversity, he is going to make us worthy of God’s love. Sure, a few billion may die, but the survivors will be the most sublime humans ever made, having suffered through Hell on Earth. (We realize at that point that Gabriel is as mad as a hatter.) He then throws Constantine across the room and, apparently, breaks his back, then prepares to use the Spear to open Angela up and release Mammon into the world. Constantine’s back is against the wall, literally, and he has only one card to play. Knowing that (as Papa Midnite had told him) he was the “one soul Lucifer would personally show up to escort to Hell,” Constantine grabs a glass shard (he can still move his arms) and slits his own wrists.

Figure 6 - Gabriel knocked down!
Figure 6 – Gabriel knocked down!

SPOILER, CONTINUED: Lucifer shows up just in time to stop time—keeping Gabriel from stabbing Angela with the spear—and Constantine tells Lucifer about his son’s plan. “Boys will be boys,” Lucifer says, at first, then realizes that Mammon will totally abrogate The Pact and, besides, Earth is still his, Lucifer’s domain. He asks Constantine what reward he wants; John says he knows what’s in store for him, and only asks that Isabel be released to Heaven. Lucifer agrees, then goes and sends his son back to Hell.  He pulls Angela out from under Gabriel’s Spear stroke, and Gabriel attempts to strike him with Heavenly force, but Gabriel’s wings burn off and he can’t touch Satan. “Looks like Someone doesn’t have your back any more,” the Devil tells him, then goes to take Constantine to Hell. (“I have whole theme parks waiting for you,” Lucifer tells him; Constantine has “deported” whole legions of the half-demons.) Attempting to drag John away, Lucifer finds that he is thwarted: by sacrificing himself and making that a condition of Isabel’s release, John has inadvertently redeemed himself. So Heaven intercedes, and Lucifer decides that since he can’t take John he will cure his cancer—reaching into John’s chest and pulling out two great handfuls of tar—and give him more years to—he hopes—screw up and commit another Mortal Sin. John takes up gum instead of smoking and he and Angela part—him giving her the Spear and asking her to hide it, even from him. “Too great a temptation,” he tells her. (After the credits, Constantine puts his lighter on Chas’s gravestone, and Chas is revealed as an angel—a new one, perhaps.)

END OF SPOILERS: Altogether a satisfying and well-acted movie by all concerned; in this case, even Keanu’s and Shia’s patented bad acting—Shia was especially egregious in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (what a terrible title!)—were not really in evidence, or at least served the movie well. We weren’t given the “The End… or Is It?” ending of so many “horror” movies; and despite its divergences from the book(s) that inspired it, I thought it all worked. Rachel Weisz, by the way, is one of those women who, like Liv Tyler in the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films, has that almost childlike look that is very attractive to many men, but who managed to look both competent—as a cop—and vulnerable, with a maturity that belied her childlike look (unlike Liv Tyler, who I never for one moment bought as a long-lived elf/warrior woman).

As always, my reviews are intended to entice you—or warn you off—when I think something is worth looking at, without telling you everything; if you read the spoilers, that’s your choice.

And also, this year we were treated to one season (about 13 episodes) of Constantine, a TV show actually based on the Hellblazer books, and with a character (Matt Ryan) who looked a lot like the actual character; Chas was returned to being an adult and friend and his name changed back to Chas Chandler. I was enjoying the heck out of it, and was quite sad when it was unexpectedly cancelled. I was almost inspired to dig into the books… but it was cancelled before I could do so. Oh, well.

A couple of quick corrections/comments on my last couple of columns: Dave Truesdale (of Tangent Online) reminded me that MidAmeriCon (1976) was in KCMO—that’s Kansas City, Missouri, not Kansas City, Kansas. Mini brain fart, and thanks for the correction. Also, I’ve been told that Josh Kirby, cover artist for so many Terry Pratchett books, in fact died unexpectedly in 2001. I must have known that, but still… he will always be sorely missed for his unique style and humour!

I’m interested in your opinion of this column, even if you didn’t like it. If you have anything to say about it, good or bad, please post your comment here—it’s easy (and you can even sign up to get automatic notifications of new columns!). Or you could comment on Facebook; I post links every Friday when a new column comes out. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!

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1 Comment

  1. I love this movie and always have. Reeves and Swinton do such an excellent job. I’ve never been a huge fan of Reeves, but I think he style of acting works very well in this story. Great article!

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