I very much love this film, and count it as an all time favorite. I saw it twice in the theatre in 2005 because I was very much enthralled by the concept of the film and the excellent execution of all its characters and ideas. It has since remained a strong favorite of the genre for me, and has driven my fandom of John Constantine further. I was not knowledgeable about him before seeing this adaptation, but in the years since then, I have become a fan. In the Hellblazer comics from DC / Vertigo, he was a blonde Englishman created by the widely revered Alan Moore and visually based off of Sting, the front man for The Police. Obviously, that does not fit the description of Keanu Reeves, who portrays the title character as a dark haired American in Los Angeles, and there are numerous other changes here that deviate from the source material. That inevitably irritated numerous hardcore Hellblazer fans, but since this was my introduction to him, I can allow both versions to co-exist in my fandom. There are many reasons why I highly love this film including its gorgeous visual style, the world it showcases, and the potential of the characters.
It is said that whoever possesses the Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in their hands, and the Spear of Destiny has just been found and put into the hands of evil influences. In Los Angeles, exorcist and occult detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) begins to see foreboding signs of something big and unfriendly coming with demons forcing their way into our world, but at the same time, the anti-social chain smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer. It’s not so much the diagnosis that troubles him as the knowledge of where he’s going. John was born with a gift he didn’t want, the ability to clearly recognize the half-breed angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin, and Constantine was driven to take his own life to escape the tormenting clarity of his vision, but he failed. Now, marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life, the bitter hard-drinking, hard-living Constantine seeks a reprieve from his Hellbound fate. He patrols the earthly border between heaven and hell, hoping in vain to earn his way to salvation by sending the devil’s foot soldiers back to the depths. Unfortunately, he gains no absolution from the half-breed angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), and no consolation from strenuous allies such as the ominous former witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou). They all adhere to “The Balance” which keeps half-breeds from directly interfering in human affairs in order to settle a wager between God and the Devil for the souls of all mankind. When desperate but skeptical LAPD Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her beloved psychic twin sister, their investigation pushes them deep into a subversive plot to use the Spear of Destiny to bring forth an evil that threatens to destroy humanity. Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events, the two become inextricably involved, and seek to find their own peace at whatever cost.
Director Francis Lawrence came from a music video background, and that can be hit or miss when moving to feature films. However, Lawrence’s background was clearly a benefit as he injects a very powerful and epic visual style into this film. Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot realizes that immersive vision brilliantly. His composition is rock solid creating very engaging visuals that pull an audience into the story and characters. There is depth to spare in his frames, and plenty of grace and integrity in how he shoots everything. There’s never any handheld camera work. It’s all fluid movement that contributes to the overall enveloping otherworldly tone of the picture. The use of color temperatures is very key to the atmosphere as it accentuates the dramatic tones throughout with a vibrant palette. This is a gracefully shot film with great attention to creating a unique atmosphere and tone in its visuals.
The overall quality of the visual effects are stunning. They are exceptionally consistent and of an amazing high quality. From subtle effects like the fiery glint in the eyes of demons to the enveloping landscape of the Hell version of Los Angeles, they create a complete, rich, textured, and full world for John Constantine to exist within that is truly convincing. The fearsome demonic creatures seen throughout are designed with consistency and originality. This feels like a world with its own weathered history, and attention is paid to every detail to present it as such. The entire “into the light” effect in the climax is awesome as the shadows are literally pulled away to force the evil presence into view. There is never just one effect used over and over again as a crutch. The film is full of vibrant effects that give the film its fantastical flare. Overall, every effect is just executed and presented with amazing artistry complementing Francis Lawrence’s vision beautifully.
I also very highly enjoy the score to Constantine. It has a great atmospheric, haunting electronic style that further fleshes out the otherworldly quality of the film, but still incorporates plenty of traditional score elements that punctuate the rousing, dramatic sequences as well as the softer, more intimate emotions of the film. Composers Klaus Badelt & Brian Tyler put together one hell of a unique musical accomplishment with this. I’ve never heard a score quite like this before, and it works so amazingly well. There is a great use of melody all throughout which enhances the emotional depth that this film is truly rich with. This is definitely a film that takes a different approach to things to give an audience a very distinctive identity for an all encompassing experience. The addition of the song “Passive” from A Perfect Circle is wicked cool in my opinion. It truly set a great tone entering into Papa Midnite’s club.
These enveloping elements wrap together to create a very rich story with a tone full of integrity and gravity. It can be a very haunting and scary film that uses horror elements at times, but is best categorized as a supernatural dark fantasy action film. The action in the film are not big set pieces with spectacular stunts. John’s not some bad ass action hero who can slug it out with a demon. Instead, he uses his occult and demonic knowledge as well as his skills as a con artist to help him win battles. He fights smart using the tools he has acquired which exploit the weaknesses of his enemies such as holy water, Moses’ shroud, a pair of Holy Cross brass knuckles, dragon’s breath, and various eclectic items provided to him by his allies.
This story is partially inspired by the Dangerous Habits comics storyline, which I have read. There’s little directly adapted from that story, and is more just taking the premise of Constantine being diagnosed with lung cancer and having to cope with that. How he deals with it and the resolutions of the comic and the film are very different, but both greatly show off John’s cunning skill as a con artist to varying degrees.
Constantine himself is very fascinating, and I think this version of him is well portrayed by Keanu Reeves. I am quite a big fan of his work ranking Point Break as one of my absolute favorite films ever. I find his work quite enjoyable, and he has some highly impressive acting ability. I think his approach tends to be more subtle, and with Constantine, he really drives home a very diverse character. Reeves showcases Constantine’s jaded personality with depth and purpose. He brings out that worn down, weathered texture that makes the character so intriguing and surprising. He can be an outright asshole because he’s been both plagued by the knowledge he has about the world around him, and that he’s destined to spend eternity in Hell, regardless of what he does. He’s tired and frustrated by these rules that these so-called “higher beings” have imposed upon humanity for their own sport, and he knows there’s little he can do to combat that. Keanu gives the character enough edge while still maintaining an underlying sense of humanity which evolves through the film. As the story goes along, he becomes more and more invested in Angela as a person instead of just her being a cog in a larger plot. You gradually see the bond form between the characters, and how that starts to drive John’s actions. There’s a pivotal shift in there where he stops sulking in his own pain and starts seeing Angela’s. He sees her regret and how far she’s willing to go to mend it. John can still be an asshole, but ultimately, it’s just to those that deserve it. Reeves portrays these subtle and strong emotional beats powerfully showing that there’s more to Constantine beyond that spiteful, embittered exterior.
Another subtle part of John that’s retained from the comics is how his friends constantly pay the price for his battles. In the comics, John is haunted by the ghosts of his dead friends, and the screenwriters slipped a brief line in here about John not needing another ghost following him around. So, it’s no wonder that he’s as cynical and jaded as he is, but it’s also these circumstances which drive him to fight. He challenges everyone on their egotistical or hypocritical behavior, and allows no one to slide.
However, the arc for the character takes him from being a self-serving person who fights evil for his own sake to someone that does the right thing for the sake of others. It takes nothing away from the hardened core of the character, it just makes him an actual hero by the end. That is helped immensely by Rachel Weisz’s emotionally impactful performance. Reeves and Weisz had previously worked together on the 1996 film Chain Reaction as love interests, and perhaps that added a stronger chemistry between them. In this film, their chemistry is exceptionally solid and tight. They have great back-and-forth dialogue with sharp timing and rich character dynamics. Angela is also easily able to stand up to John’s abrasive attitude which is a welcomed quality. Weisz strongly portrays the more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable counter-balance of the story. This allows an audience to have a relatable conduit into the character of John Constantine and his supernatural world. Rachel Weisz is an incredible actress showcasing a wide range of abilities here. She is remarkably powerful bringing out the emotional pain that Angela has deep within. However, while Angela is vulnerable, she is a police detective, and thus, Weisz never makes her appear helpless or incapable of defending herself. She has a definite strong will and confidence about her mixed in with a grounded, engaging charm. It’s simply that the character been impacted by tragic events, and is thrust into a potentially frightening scenario which brings out those fearful or unstable elements in her. Weisz handles it all with dramatic weight and grace.
It is also immensely impressive how strong the supporting cast is in Constantine. Djimon Hounsou has such an awesome presence as the witch doctor turned night club owner Papa Midnite. His deep voice and subtle charisma give weight and gravity to his performance. He can be greatly imposing and intimidating without even standing up in his initial scene. Hounsou and Reeves spark a fascinating chemistry. They play the characters with a sense of shared history which has its turbulent areas which causes friction and some antagonism between them. The screenwriters had a good philosophy of the best way to convey exposition about a character is to show them working. You get to know more about Midnite and Constantine through what they do and how they go about doing it than can really be conveyed through straight dialogue interactions. This is showcased beautifully in the sequence with “The Chair” which allows John to see the path the Spear of Destiny has taken recently, and to find out where Angela has been taken. It’s a manner of operating alluding to information that is necessary for them to know to do what they need to do, but is not necessary to be spelled out for the audience. This further reflects the sense that this a world with a long, textured history between characters, and it is presented in a very smart way that never bogs down the film with extraneous exposition. Midnite himself has a very pleasing arc in the story that ultimately shows Hounsou’s range and charm. He makes the character very fascinating, imposing, but ultimately, highly pleasing.
Tilda Swinton is immaculately graceful and elegant as the half-breed angel Gabriel. The filmmakers chose to go with an androgynous quality for the character, and absolutely wanted Swinton for the role. They chose incredibly well. Her performance has a gentle compassion that eventually turns into a subtle megalomaniacal mindset. She also has an ethereal aura and presence about her that is pitch perfect. It’s a nice dynamic when Constantine goes to see her with him ranting and calling out the hypocrisy at hand, but she offers up a very warm, motherly tone with him. They are both trying to make each other see things from their perspective, and neither is entirely in the right. There is a very aristocratic, snobbish mentality from Gabriel that John can’t stomach, and it works so exceptionally well for this character. It’s such a remarkable performance that the words to describe it in depth escape me.
Now, this film was before Shia LeBouf started grating on peoples’ nerves, but here, there’s enough heart and charm with him as Chas to make his performance a pleasure. Chas is spirited and driven to be given the chance to be of real assistance to Constantine instead of just his personal cab driver, but John just knows the danger of allowing him to do so. Yet, Chas is eventually given the chance to show his worth. As with everyone else, the chemistry is dead on the mark perfect. Gavin Rossdale’s turn as the demon Balthazar is oozing with charisma. He relishes being engulfed in evil, and that delicious smarmy arrogance just pours out over the screen. The tension and spite between him and John is thick as can be. You can’t help but love and hate him all at the same time. All of the actors throughout the film really inhabited their characters with exceptional commitment and nuance, and came together as a cohesive whole to deliver something diverse and marvelous.
Of course, there is Peter Stormare’s magnificent performance as Lucifer himself. There have been so many portrayals of the Devil over the years in cinema from some massively talented actors, and each portrayal has been unique. Stormare takes unique to a whole new level here. The physicality alone is unsettling as if he’s trying to uncomfortably fit back into a human form like it’s an old out of shape body suit, and it results in some peculiar and tense nervous energy. The look is striking enough without devolving into shock. The shaved eyebrows and shorn haircut along with the tattoos really present a standout visual that separates Lucifer from everyone else in the film. Stormare takes all of this to forge a weirdly eccentric Devil that doesn’t need to flaunt an ego or boast of his power. His creepy, chilling presence sells everything. The addition of the pure white suit and bare feet was a nice touch, and it really fits the visual aesthetics of the film.
While I have nothing against a well done origin, it is very commendable that this is not an origin story spending a large percentage of the film showing how Constantine became the man he is today. His back story is not even revealed until well into the second act as we get to know it alongside Angela, and allusions to other shared histories are sprinkled throughout. The film treats its audience as intelligent by not having to explain every little thing. It presents a world, gradually lays out the general parameters of how it works, and then, allows it to envelop the audience. I like this approach for the character because there is a lot of John Constantine history that is very relevant to the character, but it would be nigh impossible to hit all the poignant marks to develop him fully in a two hour film. Starting a film series here is very interesting because it takes John from the jaded, weathered depths to someone more purposeful and formidable. It is a greatly executed arc wrapped up in a strong plotline backed by some excellent talents in front of and behind the camera.
It seems hard to judge where this movie stands in terms of general consensus. It’s not one of those comic book movies everyone talks about, or includes on the list of the best or worst adaptations. I seem to perceive this as a film that had good commercial success, but tends to get overlooked for no apparent reason. Professional critics were divided on it, but the thing with critics is that they get paid to go see movies they are not always pre-disposed to enjoy. This was a movie that appealed to my tastes via its marketing, and it did blow me away. Again, the hardcore fans of Hellblazer likely had their passionate gripes with all the changes made to the established elements of the property, but it’s not a bad film at all. It’s exceptionally well made from a filmmaker with great vision and artistry, and features an amazing cast that put their all into it. From an objective point of view, it’s a greatly entertaining and satisfying film. It has plenty of interesting action, an excellently crafted world, fantastic, stunning visual effects, a unique and fascinating score, and is just generally well written all the way around. I really love this film, and I love what I’ve read in the Hellblazer trade paperbacks. Both offer me something different but equally satisfying to my tastes for supernatural horror and dark fantasy. If you’re unfamiliar with the property, this film can ease you into the heavier subject matter and grittier feel of the comics, but they are two unmistakably different presentations on the characters and the world they inhabit. Taking the film on its own merits, it’s a highly imaginative, excellent piece of work that is worth investing your time and interest in.