While the adventures of the chain smoking, wise cracking, paranormal mercenary, John Constantine, didn’t exactly set the box-office ablaze, the film’s bow on DVD may do its share of converting non-believers. The film’s CGI heavy look actually thrives on the medium, and makes the world of Constantine (Reeves), a man who is an integral part of the biblical power struggle between heaven and hell that the rest of us are blissfully unaware of, all the more engaging. Still, at its very core, Constantine (who, in his comic book incarnation, is a spikey haired, blonde Brit) is a Keanu Reeves movie, an actor who seems to be a passenger on some sort of karmic roller coaster of late. For every good Reeves film, there seem to be at least a few clunkers, however, luckily for us (as well as D.C. Comics, from whose stable this character was plucked) Constantine isn’t half-bad.
The film opens with the discovery of the fabled Spear of Destiny (the implement used to poke Jesus in the ribs during his crucifixion), swathed in a Nazi flag, and buried in the middle of the Mexican desert. This sets up the obligatory “mystical artifact” element of the film, a tired plot device used here to lend a sense of urgency to what comes later. When we are introduced to Constantine, he is in the midst of performing an exorcism on a young Hispanic girl, painting him as something of an urban go-to guy for all things paranormal, even though he is something of a shady, untrustworthy fellow. We soon learn that Constantine is dying of lung cancer, and, due to some past indiscretions, is destined to spend all eternity in a hell he has helped to populate, as many of the damned souls in residence were put there by Constantine himself. But, much like his choice to continue smoking cigarettes, the damage has been done, and there’s no point in stopping now.
So when Angela (Weisz) seeks out Constantine for his help in finding the answers behind her twin sister’s mysterious death, the brooding anti-hero is game, if only to piss off the denizens of heaven and hell, both of which are eager to see Constantine out of the game.
As is often the case, I enjoyed Constantine on DVD more than in the theater, not only because of the aforementioned visual quality, but because the film’s rather intensive plot just seemed easier to digest this time out. The film is loosely based on the “Dangerous Habits” arc from the Hellblazer comic series, a fantastic story that has Constantine pitting heaven and hell against one another in a selfish attempt to save his own life. It’s one of the best psychological horror tales I’ve read, and, were the film content to simply focus on that story, it may have been a much better movie. Still, Dangerous Habits didn’t have to introduce us to the complicated world of Constantine, and this film did, so one has to at least acknowledge the task faced by writer Kevin Brodbin. He had to establish new characters along with the existing ones, and craft a cohesive story that would appeal to casual horror fans, not just hardcore comic book aficionados. So, instead of a quiet little tale in which Constantine manipulates both God and the Devil into not only curing his lung cancer, but, in a sense, granting him eternal life, we get a story about an impending apocalypse, with lots of stuff blowing up, all manner of demons, ghosts, and monsters, and even Constantine’s equivalent of Monty Python’s Holy Hand Grenade; a supernatural shotgun capable of blasting holes in any dimension. It’s often quite silly, but it’s also a lot of fun, and never dull.
Reeves actually does well here as Constantine, despite the fact that the character he is channeling will always be British in my mind. His demeanor is appropriately surly and unrefined, and the actor’s quirky mannerisms and subdued delivery complement the character well. Rachel Weisz’s Angela (subtle name, no?) serves as a great “innocent” foil to the roguish Constantine, and the actresses’ likeable nature rises above the blasé material she is given to work with, making for a character we grow to care about. The supporting cast is quite strong, with Peter Stromare serving as an inspired choice to play Satan, and Hilda Swinton equally impressive as the asexual angel, Gabriel.
The film looks great, has solid special effects (although some of the CGI looks a bit dated), and first time helmer Lawrence does a decent job of not letting the supernatural elements of the film wipe the floor with his human performers.
The DVD from Warner Brothers is offered in two versions; a single disc standard edition, and the extras-packed two-disc collector’s edition reviewed here. This set comes slipcased with a mini-comic book (in scale only, as it’s a traditional 44 pages) that features a chapter from Dangerous Habits, as well as some extra goodies that explain the Constantine character’s origins in the comic book world. Disc One features the film, as well as a commentary track and music video, while Disc Two bears the brunt of the extras, including several featurettes, deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and much more. There’s enough extra material here to keep fans busy for the weekend, and I have to admit that these extras went a long way toward making me appreciate the film a lot more than I did after my initial viewing.
In the end, I have mixed feelings about Constantine. I really wish the filmmakers had stayed true to the comic book, especially the story arc they based this film on, as it was essentially a turn-key operation that, left alone, would have made for a great movie. Of course, that’s just the comic geek in me. The realist in me knows that a good chunk of the movie going public want their films stocked with big stars, big explosions, and big special effects, and, with Constantine, and this DVD set’s many extras, they get all that and a bag of chips.
Just not the English kind.