October Horrorshow: Constantine, Rhymes with Tangerine

Back in 1993, DC Comics, under the direction of editor Karen Berger, took six of its mature readers titles and placed them under a new imprint — Vertigo. The Sandman, Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol (after a legendary run by writer Grant Morrison), Animal Man, Shade the Changing Man, and Hellblazer (featuring John Constantine, rhymes with clementine) were titles that had grown beyond the core superhero titles of DC’s lineup. Berger had been responsible for much of this, bringing aboard creative talent which would have been wasted penning yet another year-long superhero crossover designed to simplify DC’s bloated continuity, or spending day after day drawing just the right amount of ripples in Superman’s abs.

The new imprint kept growing and changing throughout the years, and Hellblazer was there every month, finally ending it’s run after DC decided to have only creator-owned titles published at Vertigo.

Over 25 years, 300 issues, a boatload of specials, miniseries, and one-offs, the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, trust-betraying, English magician John Constantine (rhymes with clementine), battled demons and angels alike, along with creatures foul from myths outside the biblical. It was a treat to see what trouble Constantine (rhymes with clementine) would get into, and how he would always find a way to weasel his way out of it. He would always emerge unscathed, with only his friends and loved ones worse for wear. Regret after regret continued to pile up for Constantine (rhymes with clementine), but the various writers over the years always made sure he never gave up the magic for long.

John Constantine (rhymes with clementine) is a great character. In 2005, I was thrilled that there would be a movie adaptation of Hellblazer, until I saw it.

Constantine (rhymes with tangerine, and not titled Hellblazer) was helmed by first time director Francis Lawrence from a screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello. It features Keanu Reeves as John Constantine (rhymes with tangerine), a magician living in Los Angeles instead of London, who speaks like a surfer on methadone rather than a drunken Liverpudlian, has dark hair instead of blond, and smokes some made up brand of Chinese cigarettes rather than Silk Cut. But worst of all, the filmmakers cast Shia LaBeouf as Chas Chandler. That’s sacrilege.

You know, fanboys wouldn’t get all bent out of shape about film adaptations of their favorite comics if the people involved even appeared to have bothered reading the source material. This is less of a problem now, as comics publishers have largely wrested creative control from Hollywood studios, but before Nolan and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was a bleak time for comics fans at the movies. It was akin to popular novels being made into film, only no one made any good ones.

So, as a Hellblazer movie, Constantine (rhymes with tangerine) stinks. It also gave John Constantine’s (rhymes with clementines) creator, Alan Moore, another reason to be annoyed with Hollywood. But is the film a good Constantine (rhymes with tangerine) film?

Yeah, it’s alright.

Constantine (rhymes with…you get the idea by now) begins with captions informing the audience that there’s something out there called the Spear of Destiny, also known as the weapon that killed Christ on the cross, and it’s a source of great power. Whoever has it can alter the course of the entire world. This sounds exactly like any of the films Marvel has been pumping out lately, and it is. This whole film is about bringing together the spear and a human vessel, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), so that the son of the devil may escape from hell and walk the earth. The stakes are big in this flick, just like in superhero movies.

That’s what Constantine is, really. He eschews the underwear and uptight morality, but he does have some powers. He can do battle with demons galore and come out ahead.

An increase in demons tips Constantine to what’s going on, so he goes to war to protect Angela from a very gruesome fate.

This telling of the Constantine character was never designed to be less than a grand story, what with the world at stake, but it works better than something like an Avengers film. Maybe that’s because Los Angeles managed to survive the existential threat in Constantine intact, with only a few casualties. For whatever reason, the demonic threat doesn’t overwhelm a viewer like the endless battles of today’s fare. Director Lawrence did well, proving to audiences the value of tension over spectacle.

The CGI in Constantine, and there is a lot, should be better. The monsters never lose any cartoonishness. But the depiction of hell as our own world cracked and cooked by hellfire is excellent. This small glimpse, which probably ate up most of the CGI budget, was the most chilling scene in the film.

Another plus for Constantine is the cast, which was good all around, with one caveat. Reeves was bad when he had to explain things, or brood harder than normal. He was just fine when Constantine returned to his action wheelhouse. And Gavin Rossdale as Balthazar gets the rock star pass.

The standout performer was Tilda Swinton as the androgynous angel hybrid Gabriel, a creature plugged into both heaven and earth. It despises the human race for our close connection to God, but is still on God’s side, apparently.

Constantine is a blockbuster with little subtlety. Really its only crime was its lost potential. A dynamic character and fictional world was gutted to make this film, and that’s a shame. The short-lived TV series was an improvement, but the world still awaits a proper Hellblazer adaptation. Someone do it before Richard Roxburgh gets too old to star in it, please.