This week’s forgotten gem is a comic book movie that sort of got lost amongst the massive influx of other, more popular comic book movies at the time, coming out in the same year as Batman Begins and Sin City: 2005’s Constantine, which is a film that should get far more recognition than it does. No-one I know seems to have heard of it.
Aptly, given the film’s subject matter, I’m going to begin this article with a confession.
I’ve never read a Hellblazer comic.
In fact, back in 2005 I’d not read many comics outside of The Dandy and The Beano when I was a nipper. So I came into this film cold, as it were. I had no qualms (as many did at the time) that Keanu Reeves was playing John Constantine, a character who in the books was a blond Scouser and decidedly not Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan-shaped. But taken on its own merits, without endless comparisons to the source material (something comic folk tend to do a lot), the film is a great Good versus Evil, Heaven versus Hell epic, but one seen through the eyes of a normal bystander, in this case Rachel Weisz’s detective. Being released under the Vertigo Films banner allowed the film to deal with some pretty mature themes; suicide, demonic possession, trips to Hell, the lead character dying of lung cancer, a heavenly battle for the souls of all mankind…you’ll not find this in a Spider-man film.
As the first (and to date only) Constantine film, a lot of the first hour is set up and exposition, telling us who John Constantine is and why he does what he does. Born with a gift/curse of seeing demons and angels on this plane of existence, teenage John Constantine was legally dead for two minutes after committing the mortal sin of suicide and has been trying to buy his way back into heaven ever since by ridding Earth of as many demons as possible, because he knows that when he dies he’s going straight back to Hell. Or as the film’s tagline more succinctly puts it ‘Hell wants him. Heaven won’t take him. Earth needs him.’
Keanu Reeves is perfect for the role of the couldn’t-care-less demon hunter as the actor already has that couldn’t-care-less aura about him. Happily though here, as it did for Neo, it totally works for the character as Keanu’s somewhat detached acting style and demeanour, often a criticism of the actor in his other work, fits the mood of this film splendidly. His performance anchors the film, keeping it from descending into ridiculousness which it so easily could have done, by having Constantine be very matter-of-fact about the nature of his work and making the film feel very grounded and not at all showy, which is not what audiences would usually expect from a comic book movie featuring the actual devil. There is nothing in this film that feels remotely comic book-y, or even anything that resembles we’d consider a blockbuster. It’s a very talk-y, slow, portentous film with only one real concession to the blockbuster crowd with a scene where John takes on a room of demons with holy water and a crucifix shaped shotgun.
Although that scene is totally awesome.
The film has a very run-down, grungy look to it, like someone took The Crow and Seven and smashed them together. The scenes set in Los Angeles definitely have that Fincher vibe to them, dark and foreboding, and the scenes set in Hell (here presented as exactly the same as the real world, only with more fire and brimstone and with beasties crawling everywhere, soundtracked by the tormented screams of the damned) are terrifying. Everything in the film is darkly beautiful and twisted; all shot with a keen eye.
Director Francis Lawrence has a background in directing commercials and it shows here; again that would usually be a criticism but it lends the film a hyper real sheen that lets it get away with some of the more bonkers elements of the script. And believe me, some of the ideas presented in the film are flat out bonkers, but somehow it just all seems to fit with the world that’s being presented; a bucket of water and a cat being a portal to Hell for instance. Written down it sounds insane, but on screen it makes perfect sense. The script is filled with plenty more of these clever quirks.
If I’m honest the rest of the cast aren’t anything more than window dressing or plot devices to plunge us towards the conclusion, and although most of them are interesting, none really linger in the memory too much. Rachel Weisz’s detective (and twin sister) is the catalyst for the story more than anything else. Djimon Hounsou is fantastic in his few scenes as the neutral Papa Midnite, with dialogue snippets hinting at a past we never see. Tilda Swinton and Peter Stomare are perfectly cast as the archangel Gabriel and Lucifer respectively, Swinton lending gravitas and Stomare (as always) hamming it up, but this is really Keanu’s show.
So, give it a try. It’s practically an unknown film but, much like its title character, it deserves a shot at redemption. It proves that a film like this can be done and done well.
So, come on Hollywood, where’s my goddamn Preacher movie?