The Sunday Film Review – Guilty Pleasure #1 – Constantine
Francis Lawrence (2005)
Question: Should you ever apologise for liking a film………………… that isn’t Rise of the Planet of the Apes?
Answer: Yes, probably…………
I’ve always thought Constantine was a cool little film, so much so that it still amazes me how many of my (non-existent) film friends disagree. In an age where Superman killed, Spiderman emo danced his way to a do-over (though quite a good do-over I’ll admit), Captain ‘McBoring’ America has his own film and a moonstone evolved Daredevil into Batman, I figured Francis Lawrence’s 2004 effort would be seen more positively. I honestly thought people would be proclaiming Constantine as a throwback to a simpler and more fun ‘comic movie’ time. Instead, 8 years down the line, my film friends still sneer like they were Miley Fucking Cyrus at the mere mention of the damn thing.
Hell, even Tom, whose film taste is as close to mine as anyone’s ever likely to get, claims to have never been able to sit through the whole thing. I just don’t understand the vitriol that Constantine still seems to receive.
Recently I’ve been reading Hellblazer, for those who have enjoyable lives; Hellblazer is the graphic novel spin off of Swamp Thing that tells the story of John Constantine. It also happens to be the source material the film shredded, fired out of a cannon, dipped in acid and finally handed to Keanu Reeves. I’d suggest changing the lead character from a foul mouthed scouser with ‘cockney swagger’ into the boring middle aged version of Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan might be the source of my (none existent) filmmaker friends ire, but I know for a fact none of them read it.
Question: So where does all the anti-Constantine sentiments come from?
Answer: I don’t care
Here’s a plot summary, followed by an explanation why I think Constantine’s a great little film and you’re stupid and wrong…………….. assuming you don’t like the film either………….. which seems like a pretty safe assumption to me.
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves, yes I know I already said that, shut up) is a cynical Los Angeles resident living a life it would be generous to describe as a buggery; He’s dying of lung cancer, his job involves exorcising demons from possessed people, he knows for a fact when he dies he’s going to hell (and will therefore experience a literal buggery at the hands of the demons he’s been exorcising), the closest thing he has to a partner is Shia LaBeouf (pre oh look he’s stopped being a knob and started acting seriously stage), even Tilda Swinton thinks he’s a joke.
Like all personal problems ever, the root cause of John’s can be linked back to early childhood. When he was young John discovered he had a natural tendency for being the dead people seeing kid from Sixth Sense. Sadly Bruce Willis wasn’t around to be dead and stuff (SPOILER, Bruce Willis was dead all along in Sixth Sense), so the burden ended up driving young John crazy. A suicide attempt followed, a failed attempt, but one which involved him technically dying for a few minutes. ‘The Rules’ (a plot device implemented by the film so arbitrarily it’s brilliant), state that suicides, even failed ones, go to hell…………………….. long as they technically died. Guessing ‘The Rules’ state allowing a dude to betray you to some Roman dudes, and then letting them crucify you is totally not suicide.
Anyway, since that failed suicide attempt, John’s been doing everything he can to avoid eternal damnation and curry favour with heaven by being a good person sending demons back to hell………….. Which would be sound strategy except Heaven views helping it in a battle (more of a competition really) with demons (technically half demons because The Rules say half demons and half angels are ok, full ones aren’t) as selfish. At least it’s selfish if it’s only done to win favour, and therefore Constantine remains hell bound……………. sort of takes the phrase ‘having a jobsworth attitude’ to a new level doesn’t it.
Elsewhere, Rachel Weisz commits suicide, and her identical twin Rachel Weisz version 2 ends up asking Constantine for help investigating. That leads to the main plot of the film, a plot incorporating cameos from Bush lead singer Gavin Rossdale as a half demon, Djimon ‘DO YOU SEE A DIAMOND!’ Hounsou as nightclub owning witch doctor Papa Midnite (with interesting taste in chairs) and Pruitt Taylor Vince as a religious father with the amazing super power of reading things quickly.
Plot summary finishes.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the more enlightened reasons I’ve been given as to why Constantine is a ‘bad film’ ………………
Reason: ‘Duh bruk, I’s a donna like Keanu Reeves, he’s a gash man-clart’
Why you’re stupid: Did you see the Matrix? Yes, because everyone did. Even if his range is a little limited (emphasise on little), in the right role Reeves is a fine addition to the screen, and that’s exactly what the role of Constantine was, the right role. In both the film and graphic novel Constantine is a cynical arsehole who just does not give a fuck, Reeves barely sounds like he ever gives a fuck, ergo it’s a match made in heaven. An intense actor for an intense role, not rocket science, just good casting. If you don’t want to watch a film with Reeves in, then that makes you the problem, not the film.
Reason: ‘Well Hun-un, I for one was Hun-un bored, I mean the effects were Hun-un bland, the story was predictable at best and there was a Hun–un distinct lack of real actors like Tom Hardy or Ryan Gosling, now please excuse me Hun-un, I need to put my head back in my arse’
Why you’re stupid: In Constantine, there’s an effect that blew my mind. It involves an invisible force grabbing Rachel Weisz and pulling her through walls while Constantine chases. The effect looks amazing…… I’ve later discovered Levis did it first, but even so, their advert lacks the style and shock of the films execution. There are also sophisticated scenes involving a fight with a monster consisting solely of bugs, a pretty sweet moment involving slow motion meeting Rachel Weisz in a bath tub, and finally some smooth stuff involving a dude with a spear, cows and a car. Also, as far as ‘real actors’ go, this is a big budget screen outing involving Tilda Swinton in an interesting role (more on that later).
Reason: ‘I JUST DIDN’T LIKE IT, IT BORED ME AND I DON’T LIKE BEING BORED…….. I HAVE TO GO NOW, MY HOME PLANET NEEDS ME’
Why you’re stupid: Actually you’re entitled to be bored by Constantine, just like you’re entitled to be boring yourself, and if you don’t find something interesting in either the story of a redemptive cynic, the visuals or the acting in Constantine, then truth be told you’re really not going to find many films interesting. The exception is Hell, the films interpretation of Hell as a red dusty wasteland was pretty damn boring and unimaginative, I’ll give you that.
Reason No one’s given me but I can imagine some smart arse is just itching to email me (yes that unfortunately happens): It’s an ‘In Name Only’ and isn’t anything like the source material.
Why you’re stupid: Yup, that’s right, and the question I have to ask is so? Did it really need to be like the graphic novel, (which for the record had some entertaining early story arcs, then became incredibly tedious and pagan until Garth Ennis took over around issue 40) to be a success. This wasn’t a Batman or Superman situation where millions of fans already had preconceived notions of how the characters should be. Going deeper, story wise there’s actually quite a few things the two have in common: the high body toll of Constantine’s friends, trouble finding Constantine regardless of what he does, the interpretation of the conflict between heaven and hell and the Constantine dying of lung cancer plot comes directly from probably the best story arc in the graphic novels……………… though admittedly without the drunk Irishman or the cleverness of the middle finger ending. Anyway, the point is, sometimes films need to go off source……………………………………………………………………………not always I’ll admit, Man of Steel demonstrated that.
And now we move onto the self-indulgent stuff, here’s why I think Constantine is a cool little film.
Constantine should have amounted to little more than another major American studio hack job, a film aiming to simply cash in on the growing ‘comic book’ film crowd. Instead it ended up being a surprisingly deep and interesting film. Take the casting for instance, Reeves and Weisz certainly weren’t in the A-Team of lead actors, but neither were they far off. Both had an impressive track record for strong, detailed performances (which has continued). Now look at the support cast, Djimon Hounsou went on to be a worthy Oscar winner, for all the snipes, Shia LaBeouf is now an established and none existent god help me, entertaining leading man of his own when Michael Bay’s not around, and Pruitt Taylor Vince is quite likely the most prolific character actor you never heard of. I’ll admit Rossdale’s portrayal of a half demon amounted to little more than a butchery of the phrase ‘finger licking good’, but he wasn’t exactly a disaster. The point I’m making is, Constantine casted on grounds of quality over quantity, they could easily have thrown any name actor in the lead roles (Affleck back then was doing the rounds like the morning milkman) instead the film was cast based specifically on the needs of each role.
The supporting cast member I didn’t just mention was Tilda Swinton, and it’s not because her performance isn’t great, it is, it’s because her role represents what I really loved about Constantine, it’s a film that wasn’t afraid to try things. Can you name me a single other big studio film with an androgynous character? I can’t, but even if you can I’m willing to bet Tom’s savings the character amounted to little more than comic relief. Back in 2004, littler Sam had never seen anything even close to the image of an androgynous half-angel sneering at Keanu Reeves. The world Constantine inhabited was just so dense, populated by imagery and odd characters, at the time it was new and sort of refreshing to see a story executed in such a way, now, when comic book films more often than not achieve little more than being superficial popcorn fodder, it looks like a bloody miracle.
The other thing about Constantine that endeared it to me, was that it was a Hollywood action story where it was fine for me to dislike the leading man. Constantine was a cynical arsehole, I got the feeling he couldn’t have cared less about whether the people around him lived or died brutally. He treated everyone, from the holiest of holies to the damnedest of the damned, with utter disdain. That for me, having a lead character I didn’t like him, but still rooted for was a revelation, in a world populated by villains and arseholes, he was the one who admitted it, and as a story that fascinated me.
I think what I enjoyed about Constantine was that I found it so different from other blockbusters released at that time, looking back 8 years later and in terms of story it looks like the non-existent God compared to most of the unambitious dross that creeps out of the studio orifices. Sure it had problems, it absolutely missed a trick in terms of how dark and bloody it could have gotten, there are plot holes, and a few bits that just don’t make sense, demons choosing to stand conveniently grouped in one room while holy water sprinkles down on them is a prime example, but it was a fun, well executed if off topic adaptation that dared to dream.
You may not agree, but then you may not agree you’re a moron who’s contributed to the dumbing down of mainstream cinema either……….
Written by Sam ‘Not the real Slim Shady, just imitating’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
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