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Long before Keanu Reeves was slaying merciless action foes with books and all manners of heavy weapons, his career disintegrated a little in the mid to late 2000’s after the massive success of The Matrix trilogy. But before Reeves’ career took a bit of a nosedive, fans of the acclaimed Hellblazer Constantine series of comics got to feast their eyes upon Keanu donning the mantle of the much loved exorcist and demonologist John Constantine.
With Reeves ditching the English accent and opting for a more silent and judgmental approach, fans of the Hellblazer comics either loved it or loathed it. 15 years on and Constantine’s only cinematic appearance divides its core fanbase probably more than any other comic adaptation to date. As such, it seems only fitting that the movie deserves another chance at proving it may just be one of the best comic book films the 2000s had to offer.
John Constantine is condemned by recklessness, smoking his way through his damned existence. But when Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) seeks him out, believing her sister’s suicide was far more than it may seem, Constantine quickly learns that good and evil isn’t as simple as living a faithful life or a depraved one. Angels and demons collide as Constantine’s fight for his soul becomes a journey towards fulfillment and salvation with Angela’s heartache being the defining centerpiece.
Constantine was almost universally loathed on its release by reviewers. Roger Ebert gave the movie 1.5 out of 4 stars and critics went to great lengths to describe the occult horror actioner as “dreary” and “full of plot holes.” Yet, it somehow grossed over 230 million dollars worldwide. The reason: Constantine is a solid and extremely underappreciated action horror flick.
Reeves is an actor who, although may not have the greatest range in terms of emotion or dialogue delivery, has always committed 100 per cent to roles that demand his emotionless, rugged likability to take the foreground and shine. Constantine is one of his strongest examples. By the time we meet him, John’s nihilistic tendencies have hit near breaking point. He has a deep hatred for mankind and his constant chain smoking is his only release from the damning hell on earth he cannot wait to break free from.
Reeves’ emotionless delivery fits this perfectly as he snarls and sniggers his way through every interaction. The characters Constantine meets with find him repulsive and their very existence is just as revolting to John. Yet, Reeves makes his anti-hero an extremely likable lead you shouldn’t really care for, even before he connects with Angela and begins to find his salvation – something easy for the audience to invest in.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) approaches Constantine in a way many probably wouldn’t expect. Instead of a focus on the supernatural action set pieces that regularly populate Hellblazer, the filmmaker instead emphasises the characters and how their interactions with one another have serious consequences. Almost every player has some importance in the grand scheme of it all – whether it be Pruitt Taylor Vince’s fearful Father Hennessy consumed by his alcohol addiction or Djimon Hounsou’s Papa Midnite who becomes a pivotal point in Constantine’s fight as dark forces attempt to stop him in his pursuit of the truth. Each character’s role makes sense by the finale, rising above just fan service.
Lawrence also paints an unusual vision of Hell, it being a blasted and nuked shadow of our world. Constantine was pieced together using many elements of Garth Ennis’ ‘Dangerous Habits’ story arc. Yet, Lawrence’s willingness to create his own vision of the underworld helps give this interpretation of Constantine its own identity, feeling fresh for veteran fans while still paying enough attention to one of Hellblazer’s strongest story arcs.
The debut director also manages to create strong tension and atmosphere throughout Constantine. At the film’s darkest, the underworld begins to merge with ours leading to moments that carry a great sense of dread. Constantine’s initial meeting with Angela results in a set piece involving flickering street lamps and an emphasis on what lurks in the dark and the attempt to fight it with light. It’s a concept which may have become commonplace among horror flicks but Constantine executes it with convincing strength. Another great scene involving Constantine’s close friend Beeman (Max Baker) provides some striking visuals as the character’s fears manifest and consume him.
Where Constantine really shines is its finale. The forces of good and evil both want Constantine and he will do anything to fight the terminal cancer that is eating away at his body and escape the clutches of those hunting him. As the understanding of good and evil blurs, Lawrence bestows on viewers an action-packed finale that isn’t afraid to ask questions along with supplying appropriate answers.
The infamous Spear of Destiny is only the tip of the iceberg as Constantine must literally outwit angels and demons to live another day on this hellish Earth. It makes for a fascinating climax that has a huge amount to invest in. Plus, Reeves’ meeting with the much-loved Peter Stormare provides the best moments this flick has to offer with the Fargo star in devilish form (see what I did there). It is hard, meanwhile, to find a set piece more ludicrously entertaining from the 2000’s than the hospital battle which sees Constantine using his signature Holy Shotgun to mow down hordes of demons.
Truthfully, Constantine is like a play where almost every interaction builds to a finale that has that feeling of great spectacle we all love. Every performance is strong and just as important as the last with Reeves, Stormare, Tilda Swinton as the Archangel Gabriel and Weisz all worthy of praise. It’s very rare when a tale focused on demons and supernatural terror has this much dedication from its cast. It ensures every moment, no matter how ridiculous, is extremely believable.
Taken all together, Constantine is a fascinating tale of one man’s redemption that develops so meticulously that one cannot help but become enthralled. What begins as a simple template of rough gruff leading man combats demons turns into a sprawling anecdote for the constant struggle between good and evil and how sometimes those sides can blur and inevitably become one.