The market for R-rated horror movies built around popular-yet-obscure comic book characters was thinner 13 years ago.
In 2005, the boom of comic book movies consumed Hollywood with every studio plundering available properties for the next big thing. Warner Brothers, a subsidiary of Time/Warner along with DC comics, had access to a trove of characters and extra incentive to greenlight because the Harry Potter gravy train wasn’t going to last much longer. Besides, comic book movies originated at Warner Brothers. They’re the studio of Superman: The Movie and Tim Burton’s Batman, the two seminal films the burgeoning genre relied on as blueprints. But, it was also the studio of Superman: A Quest for Peace and Batman and Robin, making it a less than trustworthy studio in the eyes of medium to hardcore fandom.
Those very fans were developing a bit of faith with the announcement of Batman Begins under the stewardship of Christopher Nolan. The casting of Christian Bale, who had just received raves for his work in American Psycho, raised expectations. He was not only the perfect Batman, but possessed the acting chops and features to enable the ideal Bruce Wayne. The fan press was for the most part behind the next iteration of the caped crusader. Its message boards and comment sections, the gardens for toxic fandom in the age before Twitter, was supportive. The same could not be said for Constantine.
Admittedly, John Constantine is not Batman, but any comic book character that has survived a few decades tends to have very loyal and passionate readers. The character originated in the 1980s in the pages of Swamp Thing during Alan Moore’s groundbreaking run on the title. As conceived, Constantine is a wielder of magic, a purveyor of dark arts and an investigator of supernatural phenomenon. He’s a bit like Dr. Strange if Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts traded in his cape and costume for a rumbled trench coat, cheap suit and the habit of chain-smoking cigarettes for panel after panel. There’s a bit of Spade and Marlowe to Constantine, but he’s a wily Englishman who routinely cons angels and demons. When the film was announced, the list of possible Brits who would inhabit the character included everyone but the aforementioned Christian Bale; he was busy. The name no one expected was Keanu Reeves.
The fans went nuts. You would think that former Daredevil and future Batman Ben Affleck had been cast. Not only was Constantine being transformed into an American, but the wisecracking cockney who had charmed his way into many a nerd soul was now a Southern Californian. The movie was being set in Los Angeles and the character was being played by an actor made famous by the words “dude” and “excellent.” Despite the fact that Reeves remains one of the biggest stars in the world who was following the massively successful Matrix trilogy with Constantine, the fans did not embrace him.
Now, the market for R-rated horror movies built around popular-yet-obscure comic book characters was thinner 13 years ago. Warner Brothers relegated the movie to a February release, the slow season for movies when studios would gamble for a hit. Constantine opened well, but faded quickly, failing to come near the then magic number of one hundred million dollars domestic. It appeared fated to be a movie lost to the sheer quantity of films in its genre. People would discuss The Lake House when talking about Keanu Reeves, but his turn as the first John Constantine seemed doomed for obscurity. This slight cannot stand for what is one of the five great horror movies of the twenty-first century and a very loyal adaptation of its source material.
Catholicism forms the mythos of the movie, making the stakes clear. The eternal struggle between good and evil, angel and demon, for control of humanity is real. Suicides are automatically damned. There are some wrinkles in the worldbuilding in terms of the rules the angels and demons abide by, but if you’ve had a whiff of the Catholic Church in your life you’ll recognize the ardent pillars. Director Francis Lawrence (I am Legend, The Hunger Games franchise) makes Los Angeles a purgatory with scorching hot days and cool dark nights that are equally infested with the supernatural. Heaven makes a cameo, but Hell is Constantine’s destination and takes up more screen time. Both realms are designed around classic conceptions of salvation and damnation. There are clouds and pearly gates and Hell looks like a combination of Dante and Silent Hill, but there are individual moments – Tilda Swinton’s archangel Gabriel spreading its wings in front of a hearth, Lucifer’s entrance in the hospital, the exorcism that introduces Constantine – that elevate the movie to greatness.
Screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Capello chose wisely when constructing the adaptation. There is the obligatory origin story, but it is minimized to flashback when Constantine is revealing his fate to Angela Dobson (Rachel Weisz). Constantine attempted suicide when he was younger and died for two minutes. Therefore he is condemned. But if the demons and angels breaking the rules for invading earth don’t get him, the aggressive cancer in his lungs surely will. The anti-hero is nearing his end moments after the point of introduction and how he will survive is one of the great pleasures of watching this movie. John Constantine is just one man. How is he supposed to beat the devil and god?
The movie is populated with fantastic actors like Swinton, Weisz, Djimon Hounsou, Shia LaBeouf before he went mental and Peter Stormare who unleashes every weird impulse he has in his turn as Lucifer. But this is Reeves’ movie and he absolutely carries it. What Keanu Reeves has done from Ted “Theodore” Logan to Neo to John Wick is not so much act but explore the persona that is Keanu Reeves. His cadence doesn’t change, nor does his exaggerated physicality. He is always Keanu, sometimes funny, often grave, but always Keanu. In that way, he is more like an old Hollywood star, a Cagney or Bogart, equal parts distinct mannerism and performance.
Constantine allows Reeves to be the hardboiled detective in a supernatural noir, as hard and soft as that archetype requires. He plays the role beautifully, unfortunately Constantine will always suffer ridicule. The film was derided again a few years ago when the character was adapted for television by Matt Ryan, a British actor who looks more the part. What detractors fail to realize is the film is not the Hellblazer comic but more of an homage to its conceits. This may not be the John Constantine, bouncing around the DC shows on the CW, but it’s a damn fine John Constantine and the film needs to be praised for what it is: a noble effort that, in a just universe, would be a high point for its lead.