First dreamed up by grumpy, fuzzy faced comics overlord Alan Moore as a supporting character to mossy eco-warrior Swamp Thing, chain-smoking, street magician and full time tosser John Constantine was eventually awarded his own mature comic under the title Hellblazer. Brutal, political and darkly satirical, over it’s run the title would ensare of the cream of comic writers to add to it’s morally complex world to create something challenging and somewhat unlike anything else on the stands at the time so eventually, obviously, Hollywood would inevitably come calling…
John Constantine is a man marked by the devil. Cursed from a young age with the ability to see the angels and demons that move among us he irrevocably stained his soul after a suicide attempt, therefore damning himself to a one way elevator trip to Hell the second he ultimately turns his toes up. Trying to amend the balance, he now wanders through the rainy streets, acting like an entitled prick, puffing on coffin nail cigarettes and performing rough and ready exorcisms in order to right things with the Almighty and score a VIP pass to heaven. However when an apparent suicide kicks off what seems to be an otherworldly conspiracy to kick off the end of the world, John must team up with the twin sister of the victim and guide her through his twisted world in order to get to the bottom of what’s occuring. The timing, however, could not be worse as Constantine’s thirty a day habit has finally caught up with him in the shape of terminal lung cancer and the prognosis is horribly bleak. With the apocalypse days away and John’s soul forfeit no matter what he does, how can he possibly hope to save the world when he has no chance to save himself?
Having read the bulk of the comics, it’s fair to say that as a Hellblazer film, Constantine is laughably inadequate, but taken on surface level as a flashy horror noir, it actually excels where other, similarly themed movies crash and burn.
In an attempt to channel the success and other-worldly visuals of The Matrix, the universe of Hellblazer is bastardized and cramed into a far more palatable feature for a mass audience to absorb (how else would you explain the presence of a crucifix shaped shotgun or holy enfused knuckle dusters?) where a lot John’s molasses black, emotionally complicated world is sanitised in favour of a more traditional procession of CGI demons and angels all traversing in familiar shades of grey. So the blonde, raincoat clad and VERY Liverpudlian John Constantine becomes the raven-haired, American form of Keanu Reeves.
While hardly dream casting (a comic accurate Constantine would surely be Paul Bettany) Reeves’ version does retain some important character points from the original source though. Herculean cigarette intake and self destructive nature aside, John is a hideous user, a man who cares for his friends but also not above convincing them to put themselves in hideous danger in order to further his own aims and it’s here where the casting of Neo as a callous street wizard admittedly makes sense. To avoid making an audience completely reject the character, the very presence of Reeves (obviously relishing playing the arsehole) makes the character likeable but still edgy. Less of a cunt, more of a cad, you might say.
Surrounding Reeves is an impressive cast rounding out the freaks and creatures lurking in Constantine’s periphery with Rachael Weisz (doing most of the heavy lifting) as the detective dragged into this world and a staggeringly good Tilda Swinton stealing the movie wholesale in only two scenes as the angel Gabriel. Also in the cast are a pre-Transformers Shia Labeouf, Djimon Hounsou as neutral voodoo club owner Papa Midnite and, for some reason, Gavin Rossdale from the band Bush as a breathy demon.
First time director Francis Lawrence (who went on to give I Am Legend the same kind of revisionist treatment but with far worse results) heaps on legitimately impressive imagery that still work today, chief among them is a vision of Hell that resembles test footage of nuclear blasted towns positively crawling with demons sporting yawning chasms in their skulls where their brain pans should be. Other stand out visuals involve an otherworldly assasin made up entirely of bugs and snakes and a remarkable destructive short cut for Rachel Weisz to leave a skyscraper.
By the time we reach the genuinely intriguing climax – which riffs heavily on Garth Ennis’ (Preacher, The Boys) time on the comics – it’s clear that this honestly enjoyable movie, much like it’s anti-hero protagonist, walks in two worlds. Where John strides across the divide between the real world and the supernatural, the movie attempts to cross the gulf between a cult comic and a commercially viable feature while still trying to vaguely keep the strands of the universe recognisable.
Die hard Hellblazer fans are well within their rights to stay at arms length (and that’s why I can only give it 3 stars) but to the uninitiated, Constantine is a great, inventive horror thriller that still manages to outclass the Hell out of similarly themed fare.