“You still trying to buy your way into Heaven”
At the height of the first new wave of comic book adaptations, Warner Bros. delved a little deeper into the literary medium’s annals for something dark like New Line’s Blade. It was three years before Iron Man ushered in cinematic universes and a year after Spider-Man 2 and X2 provided a one-two punch of the genre’s potential. Batman Begins was always going to be the studio’s 2005 crown jewel, but you could call Constantine a precursor to its pitch-black, cynical atmosphere trying to remove the hokey humor so many associated with comics. Here’s a character that attempted suicide to escape the world of half-breed angels and demons surrounding him only to be revived with a damned soul. Now a chain-smoking loner battling evil to earn God’s grace and a place in Heaven, his personal judgment day has arrived.
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) was a rather new creation, debuting in 1985 courtesy of Alan Moore‘s Swamp Thing arc. Three years later he had his own series entitled Hellblazer whose “Dangerous Habits” story by Garth Ennis inspired Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello‘s script. Details from the “Original Sins” trade paperback were included as well as certain alterations like moving the from London (the character was stylistically based upon Sting) to Los Angeles. And while the film was given an R rating, one could say it lived too close to PG-13 territory to truly utilize the freedom an R provides. Talk as recent as 2011 has said a sequel would go darker and scarier, but I don’t think a Part 2 over ten years later is in the cards despite the original bringing in twice its budget once the dust settled.
Director Francis Lawrence was given three storylines to play out simultaneously. There’s John’s quest for salvation, the unknown evil plans of a soldier demon looking to break through onto our plane, and policewoman Angela Dodson’s (Rachel Weisz) search to prove her sister’s recent death wasn’t the open/shut case of suicide evidence shows. An eclectic cast of characters come in and out of each thread with varying levels of occult/mystical powers from the bi-partisan witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), and demon Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale), each engaged in God and Satan’s “friendly wager” to see who could acquire the most humans by the Apocalypse. Their rules state only suggestion can be used to sway mankind’s morality, but increased paranormal activity and dangerous entities attempting to kill Constantine show the game has changed.
All three plots focus on the famed Spear of Destiny that killed Jesus Christ. We watch as it’s discovered wrapped in a Nazi flag underneath the arid desert of Mexico by a migrant worker who for all intents and purposes finds immortality while possessing it. He starts off towards LA to fulfill plans we are still in the dark about until a little past the midway point once Satan’s (Peter Stormare) son Mammon comes into play as a puppet master to Balthazar overstepping his boundaries. Everyone around Constantine—besides his driver/apprentice Chas (Shia LaBeouf) who comes and goes with very little to do—finds death and John begins to put the pieces together of what’s truly happening as well as how Angela fits in. His anger rises, his fear of eternal damnation nears, and his chance for true sacrifice arrives.
Looking back, not much actually goes on despite these converging stories. A bunch of characters are introduced who eventually prove more important than the tiny cameos at first appearance, but even so the story of John Constantine’s salvation is always paramount. It’s fun to see him selfishly walk around like an unrewarded hero, dismissively crossing paths with Angela twice before coincidence proves fate. He’s a dick to everyone around him, believing he’s owed life when he knowingly threw it away as a teenager. And all these years of fighting evil has done nothing but earn Lucifer’s pleasure at taking a personal trip to claim his soul once the time finally comes. Gabriel won’t help him, Chas wants to but is constantly rebuked, and every other friend he has harbors resentment beneath the thin façades of civility outwardly shown.
There’s a smidgeon of romance between Angela and John, but her desire to avenge her sister and his efforts to stop Mammon’s plan in a last ditch shot at catching God’s eye overshadow it. Instead Constantine really is the start of a potential franchise giving us exposition with purpose. We aren’t sure whether John will be done in by cancer or a demon by its end nor if Hell is his final destination—so we rally behind his stop-at-nothing attitude wreaking havoc on tradition and unwritten rules whenever necessary. We watch him go into hell twice—a post-apocalyptic wasteland mirroring our own dimension with a heat wave distortion of orange shrouding everything—and see the cranially-exposed baddies trying to breakthrough. He’s a badass antihero and mankind’s last hope whether he cares to be or not.
It’s an intriguing template for a superhero that really is counter-programming to the hero-complex so many others possess. The special effects are a bit dated only because many scenes use them wall-to-wall, but the darkness helps mask them to let the tone speak for itself. Reeves is perfectly suited to this type of laconic character with a chip on his shoulder and Weisz adds a nice bit of heart and emotion to the otherwise cold fight for existence. Stormare and Swinton are a treat of over-the-top supernatural hubris while Hounsou gets an opportunity to be entertaining if only to foreshadow a more integral role in subsequent stories. I enjoyed the occult references and their handling of Heaven versus Hell by using religious artifacts as weapons rather than objects of faith, but sadly nothing more came out of it.
 Shia LaBeouf and Keanu Reeves in Warner Bros’ “Constantine” (2005)
 Rachel Weisz as Angela Dodson in Warner Bros’ “Constantine” (2005)
 Djimon Hounsou as Midnite in Warner Bros’ “Constantine” (2005)