Bad or Rad? Constantine – The Comic Flick That Barely Did

"This is Constantine. John Constantine, asshole."

Travel back with me to a time before comic book flicks became superhero films. Prior to 2005, the most well developed movie based on a hero from the funny papers was Richard Donner’s classic Superman, one of the most powerful heroes ever imagined. Too much too soon? Did we overshoot the first gift to a new lover, the bite outdoing the chew? Covering the lineage of superhero films is not the task at hand, and I have very little attachment to Superman in general, but Constantine does know a thing or two about this chew-to-bite ratio.

This “Keanu Reaved” (the new term for a movie that Keanu soused with Keanu-ness, that now cannot be divorced from his subdued stares) paranormal detective story based on Vertigo comic’s “Hellblazer” is a sprawling parable about opposing consequences at war. It is the boundary line that marks for me when studios began telling us to take these super-people seriously. And I’m not sure we’ve recovered from removing the tongue from the cheek of these action films. There’s a layer of gravitas we’ve tried to inject into the silly world of comic books, and Constantine is the bedrock of this surgery. Is it Bad or Rad? It’s more like a really bright student that was getting a Bad grade the entire semester, but somehow pulled off a Rad right at the buzzer.

Constantine asserts itself as a movie where the spiritual and physical world have visceral connection from the opening scene. The Spear of Destiny, a weapon said to have pierced Jesus on the cross, lost since WWII, is found in Mexico wrapped in a Nazi flag. Imbuing our unlucky discoverer Manuel with clearly dark power, The Spear sets him walking under some spell towards god knows what. We are obviously told there will be literal hell to pay.

Catholic depictions of Good and Evil, God and The Devil, Holy and Unholy are brought to a boil and thrown together at every turn here, and the result is both scalding and purifying. Keanu Reeves, an actor with the split opinion ratio of cauliflower, and the same uncanny stand-in ability as that dynamic vegetable, plays our wise cracking Private Paranormal Eye. Cauliflower might actually have a slight lead on him after watching Much Ado About Nothing, but to this day he holds a conviction at his center that sets the cadence of his voice. No one can maintain a beach-bum vibe that long without standing, or chilling, for something.

That repose is what lays the foundation for a movie that plays with religious and occult imagery in with fantastic, early noughties nu-metal flair. Takes a certain kind of movie to make us believe in a blessed shotgun, that demons can be captured in mirrors, and that we’re supposed to be convinced Gavin Rossdale wouldn’t botch his role as a mini-boss Hell spawn. As soon as Gavin attempted a sinister sincerity with the line “finger lickin’ good”, in reference to how delicious it would be collecting Constantine’s soul, I would have been scouring alternative radio stations worlds over to find a suitable Balthazar replacement.

The whole film has the feeling of someone having a great concept about The Ancient War Betwixt Good and Evil, who never watched The Seventh Seal, and always thought Constantine was a wildly undervalued character. Hellblazer fans, even tangential ones like myself, who may have caught pieces of his character in Swamp Thing or newer Justice League Dark titles might wonder where all the bite went in the sardonic PI. Again, Keanu’s detective lays the perfect groundwork of cool, but misses on the kill. Even when pressing his forearms together to create the symbol that gives him an audience with God, which looks like it might cost him his life (and ultimately Lucifer shows up instead) he looks like he’s already slouched into bitterness instead of staying in the tension of resentment.

Maybe no one but Keanu would be up for a film like this before it was a promised cash-grab, but he’s what holds the film closer to a star-gaze instead of a firmament collapse. Every time we get glimpses of Hell, which looks to be in perpetual nuclear fallout, we are snapped back by a line like: “So when a half-breed breaks the rules, I deport their sorry asses straight back to Hell…been hoping to get enough to ensure my…retirement.” The imagery of the film betrays some of the mishaps in dialogue though, because it is incredibly well shot from start to finish. Philippe Rousselot, director of photography for movies like Interview With A Vampire and A River Runs Through It, may have had something to do with this.

The mood of Papa Midnite’s club is sweaty, purple, and heaving with the tension of binary opposition. The cathedral Constantine often finds himself in is vaulted, both by shadows and luminance. Yet when we’re supposed to feel the sarcastic enjoyment of a lovable a-hole, we are shown a detective more sad than the ends he’s trying to rescue humanity from. We want Constantine to find redemption if for nothing else than to stop the kid from crying. A film about the mouth of Hell opening to swallow us whole ends up missing teeth, and tries to frantically replace them with a strangely overpowered supporting cast (sans Rossdale).

Rachel Weisz pulls double duty as twin sisters Angela and Isabel Dodson, the powerful seers required to birth the son of Satan through an earthly body, and shows her attraction and frustrating need for John Constantine sincerely — he could’ve learned a thing or two about projecting duality. Djimon Hounsou gives us an unyielding take on Papa Midnite, the club-owner who welcomes agents of both North and South ,but will not tolerate war on his grounds. We even get blessed by Tilda Swinton as an overzealous archangel Gabriel, the one who would assist in unleashing hell just to make humanity “worthy of God’s love”. A special nod to the budding Shia Lebouf as Chas Kramer, the neurotic sidekick and eventual martyr in Constantine’s mission, whose ska-starter kit threads belie the innocent do-gooder perfectly. None of them, not even Peter Stormare’s unnerving Satan, could help Constantine tread the thin line between ironic and fatal for very long.

In stretches though, especially the final scenes in the wrecked hospital, something beautiful is captured in Constantine’s self-sacrifice. A tale that synthesized so much religious lore and occult mythology ends like an old epic, or a nu-noir (nu-metal reference implied). Our hero ends gazing at all he’s helped saved with a stick of gum on his lips, not a cigarette. The aggressive lung cancer Constantine was bounding towards is removed by the Devil himself, and some kind of tragic bite is stolen from us too. We have to live with this movie, and ourselves, a little longer it seems. It’s a sweet enough torture, and if they’re going to give Keanu another (possibly two) John Wick, why not toss in one more try at the supernatural sleuth for good measure?

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