Constantine. A lesson in devious bastardry

by Suw on February 25, 2005

John Constantine: Hellblazer. Tall, blond Brit with an attitude you could strike matches off. My first comicbook antihero crush.
Keanu Reeves: Actor. Not so tall, not so blond American with an attitude that confuses people. My secret, shameful crush.
On the face of it, the latter is not a good match to portray the former, so I was pretty much expecting Constantine to suck. Suck arse, in fact. But, you know, I do think Keanu is frequently unfairly maligned, so when I got the chance to go see Constantine in Vancouver I thought I'd give it a go. I mean, you never know, right? And maybe it was going in with such low expectations, but I really enjoyed it.
Now, before I go any further, I want to say that I am a fan of Hellblazer – Jamie Delano and Garth Ellis created one of my favourite characters in JC. I also hate seeing comic books murdered – I would rather Neil Gaiman's Sandman never see the light of day as a movie than be mangled by studios who don't get it. But, unlike Hellboy last year which slipped over to the wrong side of the getting it line with a weak plot, overly protracted fight scenes and characters in whom it was hard to invest, Constantine manages to stay roughly true to the JC mythos, create a compelling plot and characters you feel for, and doesn't get swamped by excessive fight scenes or too much CGI.
As a surly, sarcastic occultist with a sick sense of humour and no respect for anyone, Keanu does really well. I even managed to gloss over the fact that it was him for a while, although I never really quite got to the point of seeing him as JC, but that's because I'm so used to JC being tall, blond and, as I may have mentioned already, British. Yet I don't think that people new to Hellblazer will have any trouble in seeing Keanu as JC, nor in translating the screen version into the comic version – it's easier to do it that way round after all. (And I'm guessing that the majority of people who go to see Constantine will not, in fact, be Hellblazer fanboys.)
Tilda Swinton is brilliant as the androgynous angel Gabriel, matching the similarly androgynous Gavin Rossdale as the demon Balthazar, each attempting to twist reality to their own ends. And Rachel Weisz does a great job as twins Angela and Isabel. Although other reviews have faulted the casting, I personally can't. But then, I had no expectations of who would play whom in the first place, so maybe I'm that bit more open to suggestion.
Actually, on this point… I would just like to ask who could have played JC instead of Keanu? Tall blond Brits aren't ten a penny in Hollywood and I'm not sure that either Paul Bettany or Rhys Ifans could pull off the lead in a film like this. And Sting is too old. Mind you, this observation means nothing cos I'm crap at the casting game.
*** Warning: Potential Spoilers ***
The basic plot of Constantine is based on the graphic novel Dangerous Habits, in which JC discovers that he's going to die of lung cancer. Screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello have taken various plot strands and scenes from Dangerous Habits and have then woven a different story around them. They may have taken aspects of other Hellblazer books, but I've not got all of them, so I'm not sure. However, having read Dangerous Habits last night, I have to admit that there's no way you could do a straight adaptation – it just wouldn't work on the big screen as it is. There's too much backstory required, too much exposition. I mean, JC hardly speaks at all, even in the comic – it's all exposition.
So instead of a clunky Hellblazer film, Brodbin and Cappello took Constantine, took his character, his universe, his mythos and they created something slightly new which, dare I say it, works better on film than Dangerous Habits would have. The ending, in particular, works better because it is clearer and requires less explanation, but even more devious bastardry than JC usually musters.
Of course, even if they can get past the dark-eyed mesmeric look of Keanu, the fanboys will find stuff to gripe about. JC uses a cruciform silver (elephant?) gun, for example, despite the fact that he never uses weaponry in the comics. There's a shoot-out, despite the fact that I don't recollect seeing JC in that sort of action clinch in the comics. But one key thing for me is that the weaponry and shoot-outs don't win the battles – it's JC's cunning and guile that ultimately save the day and that is exactly what happens in the comics.
My only criticism, after a first viewing, is that one doesn't isn't really shown the nature of JC's personality. He is someone who has been responsible for friends' deaths, but who remains unrepentant because he did what needed to be done. As Johnny says in the intro to Dangerous Habits:

I'm the one who steps from the shadows, all trenchcoat and cigarette and arrogance, ready to deal with the madness. Oh, I've got it all sewn up. I can save you, if it takes the last drop of your blood, I'll drive your demons away. I'll kick them in the bollocks and spit on them when they're down, and then I'll be gone back into the darkness, leaving only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack.
I walk my path alone.
Who would want to walk with me?

But that darkness, that loneliness, that guilt doesn't come across in the film as well as I would have liked. I understand, however, why they changed his backstory. The one they've created is far easier to explain, and it fits in perfectly with the rest of the plot, creating a nice synergy between JC and Angela, an depth of understanding that's required in order for his actions to be believable.
Maybe one of the reasons that I liked Constantine so much was because it reminded me so much of what I want my screenplay, Tag, to be. The atmosphere, the great CGI, the beautiful set design, the feeling that JC is really struggling to figure out what's going on. But mainly I think I love it because it took me away to a place I wanted to go, to somewhere on the boundaries of worlds where things exist that we weren't meant to see.
And the fact that as John Constantine, Keanu Reeves managed to be a crush of mine playing a crush of mine? Well, it didn't hurt.

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