Constantine (2005) marked the feature film debut of music video director Francis Lawrence who, judging by the look of this movie, would like to follow in the footsteps of David Fincher. For his first time out, Lawrence takes on the daunting task of adapting the excellent comic book, Hellblazer. Its main character, John Constantine first appeared in the pages of Swamp Thing, during an illustrious run by Alan Moore. Eventually, Constantine got his own series with the launch of DC Comics’ Vertigo line. Jamie Delano was the primary writer and fleshed out the character’s backstory, his friends (like Chas the cabbie) and family. These stories typified late 1980s comic book horror and provided a bridge between Moore and the next creative heavyweight to tackle the character, Garth Ennis. His run on Hellblazer is where the movie gets most of its material from. Constantine is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking guy suffering from terminal lung cancer. He becomes embroiled in a complex war between Heaven and Hell with humanity caught in the middle.
The movie moves the comic’s setting from London to Los Angeles with John Constantine no longer being a blond-haired Englishman who looks like Sting to a very un-British-looking Keanu Reeves. The opening sequence introduces Constantine as an expert demon hunter trying to get back in with the good graces of God and the way he figures it, buy his way back into Heaven, but it isn’t that easy. We meet him as he exorcises a nasty demon from a young girl (a snazzy CGI updated riff on The Exorcist) while his twentysomething sidekick, Chas (Shia LeBeouf) waits in the car and perfects his Travis Bickle routine. Despite these cliches, this introduction is quite impressively shot and Lawrence successfully establishes this supernatural world and wisely limits Reeves’ dialogue, conveying most of what we need to know through the visuals.
Angela (Rachel Weisz) is a police detective whose twin sister has just died, committing suicide in a psychiatric hospital. Angela suspects foul play and this leads her to Constantine. They learn that demons are finding a way to crossover into our world and it has something to do with the Spear of Destiny (the weapon used to kill Jesus) being instrumental in summoning the son of Satan. To make matters worse, Constantine is rapidly dying from lung cancer and this gives his mission a certain sense of urgency.
Fans of the comic book are probably not going to like this movie. Constantine is supposed to be world-weary, a sarcastic drunk and womanizer but Reeves doesn’t quite pull it off. He presents a more sanitized version of the comic book character and even that feels forced. Another major betrayal of the character is having him wield a gun (a cool-looking crucifix shotgun), something that the Constantine of the comic would never do. Guy Pearce or Clive Owen would have been a much better choice to play Constantine.
Rachel Weisz is also miscast as Constantine’s potential love interest. Her line delivery throughout the movie is flat and lacks passion. She has zero chemistry with Reeves (didn’t they learn anything from Chain Reaction?) and someone like Fairuza Balk or even Drea DeMatteo would have been much better in this pivotal role. On the plus side, alternative rocker Gavin Rossdale plays a very dapper Balthazar who looks like he stepped right out of a GQ photo shoot. He has a lot fun chewing up the scenery and his confrontation with Reeves is one of the highpoints of the movie.
Lawrence certainly knows how to establish atmosphere and does an excellent job of presenting a seedy, Los Angeles underworld populated by bars filled with demons, dilapidated apartments and grungy city streets slicked with rain. Thankfully, he doesn’t fall into the trap of shamelessly ripping off Blade Runner’s (1982) dystopic cityscape. If anything, his vision of Constantine’s world is like an episode of the television show Angel on big-budget CGI steroids. He also is able create an effectively creepy mood throughout. For example, there’s a nice, throwaway scene where Constantine and Angela are on a city street when all the lights systematically go out as a slew of nasty, winged demons swarm all over them.
Despite the miscasting of Reeves and Weisz in the two main roles, Lawrence’s take on Constantine is actually quite entertaining, even more so if you haven’t read the comic book. However, fans of the series will have problems with the major liberties the filmmakers have taken with the characters – especially Constantine and Chas. Like most comic book adaptations, this film only sprinkles certain elements from the source material, just enough to vaguely resemble it while watering it down for mainstream consumption. It’s a shame because in the right hands, Constantine could have been more like Hellboy (2004) instead it’s closer to the flawed, missed opportunity of The Punisher (2004).