Lately, I’ve had John Constantine on the brain.
As far as I can tell, this came from a couple of different places. I read a lot of comics, and for a while it seemed like all I was reading was Batman comics. I love Batman comics, but a few months ago I started to want something different. I remembered that a few years ago, I had tried to read some of the Hellblazer comics, which was Constantine’s first solo series, but at the time they were just too weird for me and I gave up.
But I decided, what the heck, there’s no time like the present, so I went out and picked up some Hellblazer comics. I’ve really been enjoying them, even though I’m not always entirely sure what’s going on and I’m sure that some of the social commentary in the comics has completely escaped me, since Hellblazer was originally published in 1988, which also just so happened to be the year I was born, so needless to say I wasn’t exactly aware of the political and social landscape of the time. Please don’t judge me too harshly, as I had only recently been born.
Anyway, on the off chance that you have absolutely no idea what the bloody hell I’m talking about, let me explain who John Constantine is. I think Wikipedia describes him very well, so allow me to quote: “Constantine is a working class magician, occult detective and con man stationed in London. He is known for his endless cynicism, deadpan snarking, ruthless cunning and constant chain smoking, but is also a passionate humanist driven by a heartfelt desire to do some good in his life.”
I love that description, and I love the character of Constantine. He’s a great big bundle of glorious contradictions, a frequently self-loathing, hard-smoking British sorcerer who nonetheless is driven by a strong desire to help those around him. He’s a cantankerous bastard, and it’s frequently not a good idea to be his friend, since good things don’t usually end up happening to friends of John Constantine.
In the comics, Constantine is no action hero. He gets involved in all kinds of trouble with demons and other supernatural entities, but he talks or cons his way out of trouble, and as a result he frequently makes more enemies than he defeats, and creates more trouble for himself and his friends. His cynicism is somewhat understandable, since all of his attempts to solve problems always end up causing more. This makes him a relatable character, despite all of the supernatural goings-on that surround him.
The Hellblazer comics are wonderfully weird, and even though the exact details of some of the stories occasionally escape me, I always enjoy the experience. One of the things I enjoy most about the comics is that no two page layouts are ever exactly the same. Sometimes the panels are laid out in such a way that it can be a bit of a challenge at first to figure out the right order in which to read them. But, the right order will eventually present itself, and reading the comics always provides a unique and enjoyable experience.
There have been a couple of screen adaptations of Constantine. The first was the much-maligned 2005 movie version starring Keanu Reeves. The movie made the puzzling decision to take Constantine, who in the comics was blond and British (Sting was the original visual inspiration for the character), and have him be played by Keanu Reeves, who is quite spectacularly neither blond nor British. The movie presents an Americanized version of Constantine who is based in Los Angeles rather than London and has more of an action-hero vibe, who has his own version of James Bond’s Q who supplies him with anti-demon gadgets.
The movie version is widely hated by Hellblazer fans, and it’s not hard to see why. Pretty much the only aspects of the character that carry over to the movie are Constantine’s cynical nature and constant chain-smoking.
I’ll talk more about the movie in a bit, but first I want to mention the other screen adaptation of Constantine, the TV version which unfortunately only ran for one season on NBC before it was cancelled. I quite liked the TV version, and from what I read the show’s creators tried their best to save it, but NBC wasn’t listening and cancelled it anyway. It’s really too bad, since the show’s portrayal of Constantine is much more in keeping with the Hellblazer comics, with several episodes of the show being more or less direct adaptations of stories from the comics. The only thing the show didn’t have was Constantine’s relentless smoking habit, and that’s probably because smoking onscreen is a bit of a taboo these days.
In the show, Constantine was played by a Welsh actor named Matt Ryan, who was pretty much perfect in the role. He did a great job encapsulating the character’s world-weary cynicism while still conveying his innate humanity and desire to help people under threat from supernatural forces. Even though NBC cancelled the show, there’s clearly still some love for Ryan’s portrayal of the character, since he recently reprised the role in an episode of the popular TV series Arrow. I watched the episode, even though I had never watched an episode of Arrow before, and despite the fact that I didn’t really know what was going on, I still enjoyed seeing Ryan play Constantine again, he really is the perfect actor for the role.
Since I had been thinking about Constantine a lot from all this, I re-watched the movie the day before I started working on this post, and, well, there are quite a few things to be said about the movie.
Much like the comics, the movie is a deeply strange piece of work and the plot is a bit of a mess. But the movie is bolstered by mostly solid special effects (although some of the CGI does look a bit shonky by today’s standards) and a really great supporting performance from Rachel Weisz. Some of the movie’s casting is a bit weird (aside from Keanu), since the movie casts rocker Gavin Rossdale (lead singer of the band Bush) as a demon named Balthazar, and casts Shia LaBeouf as Constantine’s sidekick Chas.
Constantine the movie is an interesting case. As an adaptation of the source material, it more or less completely fails, but taken as a movie on its own terms, it actually works pretty well. Even though the movie’s version of Constantine the character doesn’t have much in common with his comic book counterpart, his cynicism and world-weariness are very much intact.
And, again, not that surprising. In the movie, God and Lucifer are embroiled in a war for the souls of all mankind, and angels and demons are able to possess and influence humans as half-breeds. As a child, movie Constantine was able to see angels and demons in our world. These visions haunted him, and at 15 he attempted suicide. He was officially dead for two minutes before he was revived, and spent those two minutes in hell. As a result of his suicide attempt, his soul is now bound for hell because of this mortal sin. He now spends his days exorcising demons and banishing (aka killing) half-breeds in an attempt to shore up enough favors with God to earn his way into heaven.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is a Comparative Exponential Religiosity Post. I originally called this little series Comparative Exponential Religiosity Crap, but I decided to leave out the “Crap” part because I don’t want it to seem like I don’t take this subject seriously, or that I don’t respect it, because I do.
Now that that’s cleared up, let’s get on with the movie. In some ways, the movie’s view of matters of faith is somewhat black and white. The movie is heavy on the Catholicism, and since Constantine’s suicide attempt was a mortal sin, his soul is condemned to hell no matter what he does. And his time is running out, since his incessant chain-smoking has given him terminal lung cancer. His predicament is explained in Constantine’s conversation with the angel Gabriel (played by Tilda Swinton, a chameleon of an actor if ever there was one). Now, I’m not saying suicide is or is not something that will instantly condemn your soul to hell, but in order for the plot of the movie to work it kind of has to be. I don’t mean to offend anybody, since I know suicide is a touchy subject, I’m simply trying to examine the film based on its own philosophy.
Going back to Gabriel, he (she? The movie’s version of Gabriel is intentionally androgynous) tells John that, due to his mortal sin, his soul is going to hell and he can’t do anything about it. His revival after his suicide attempt only gave him a brief reprieve from hell.
But there’s a really interesting idea buried in here. John was in hell for two minutes, and he’s always been able to see angels and demons. He therefore knows conclusively that God and the Devil exist. But since he knows that, is he even capable of having true faith? Is it possible to have faith in something that you know to be real, or is the very concept of faith based on not being able to know something for sure? And if John isn’t capable of having true faith, is he even capable of repentance?
It’s shocking to me that a Hollywood movie raises these questions, and in some ways it’s amazing that this movie ever got made in the first place. Not just because of the religious content, but also because the movie is just so damn strange. In one scene, John, goes to hell by putting his feet into a bucket of water and staring into the eyes of a cat on his lap. This somehow allows him to enter hell, which the movie portrays as a sort of apocalyptic Los Angeles full of crawling demons. During the hell scene, there’s even a brief shot of what appear to be souls writhing in torment. It’s very Dante-esque, and the film doesn’t linger on the image, it’s there and then gone. In some ways it’s a brave movie, since it goes to a lot of places most movies don’t, both literally and figuratively.
And Keanu is really not that bad in the role. It’s maybe better to view Keanu’s portrayal of Constantine as a character inspired by the comic book version of Constantine, rather than directly based on it. I still hold that Keanu can be a good actor when he wants to be, and his performance in the movie really sells Constantine’s increasing desperation. He just doesn’t look healthy, and as the movie progresses he begins to look downright gaunt.
He is told that Satan wants his soul so badly that his is the only soul Satan would come down to collect himself. Because of all this, he is increasingly unable to see a way out of his predicament, until a detective named Angela, played by Rachel Weisz, comes to him with a unique problem, that just may give him the key to his own salvation.
Angela’s twin sister Isabel (also played by Weisz) has recently killed herself by jumping off the roof of the psychiatric hospital she was a patient at. Despite camera footage showing this, Angela refuses to believe her sister would have killed herself, since Isabel was a devout Catholic and Angela doesn’t believe she would have willingly condemned her own soul to hell. As Angela tells a priest, Isabel never would have killed herself and sent her soul to hell on purpose because “God was the only one she ever believed loved her.”
It turns out that Angela is carrying a lot of grief about her sister’s death, and also how she treated her when she was alive. When they were kids, Isabel and Angela could both see things, like John could, but when Isabel tried to tell people about it Angela would never say that she could see them too. Eventually, Isabel was committed and Angela lost the ability to see the things that both John and her sister are able to see into their adulthood.
I won’t go in to too much detail about the rest of the plot, if all of this trippy stuff sounds interesting and you haven’t already seen the movie it is worth checking out. It may not be a great adaptation of the source material, but as a sort of supernatural neo-noir it works pretty well. Constantine is kind of an occult Philip Marlowe (another character known for his cynicism), and Keanu mutters every line in a way that suggests he may have given up already.
And Rachel Weisz is just terrific in the dual role of twin sisters. Angela (it occurred to me that her name is not coincidental) is a woman of strong faith who encounters something she doesn’t know how to deal with and isn’t willing to accept. Rather than doing nothing about it, she reaches out to someone, and, even though that someone can be kind of a jerk, it ends up leading to something bigger for both her and John. Interestingly, John and Angela are never romantically involved, and even after they stop Satan’s son from entering our world and causing hell on earth, they never even kiss. Weisz is very beautiful, but to the film’s credit she’s not impossibly beautiful. She looks like an actual person that you might see walking down the street. The movie as a whole doesn’t glamorize any of its subject matter or characters, although I guess it wouldn’t be much good as a noir if it did.
The movie was the directorial debut of Francis Lawrence, who went on to quite a bit of success with the Will Smith-starring sci-fi hit I Am Legend, and has directed three of the four Hunger Games films. Constantine is uneven but overall it’s not a bad effort for a debut feature, it shows he’s got the chops as a visual stylist who doesn’t forget about the importance of character.
And I would be amiss if I failed to mention the great Swedish character actor Peter Stormare (he who put Steve Buscemi through the wood chipper in Fargo) as Public Enemy No. 1, Satan himself. He appears to collect John’s soul at the film’s climax, and has to be one of cinema’s most memorable portrayals of the Prince of Darkness. Clad in a white suit, with tattoos creeping up his neck and bare feet dripping with ichor, he exudes menace and appears slightly steamy, as if he only recently emerged from somewhere a bit toasty. Stormare is fantastic at playing Satan’s leering glee at finally being able to collect his most-desired soul, and even though he is only in the movie for one scene near the end he is still able to neatly steal the entire film.
So, there are my thoughts about the various incarnations of John Constantine across different media. He’s a fascinating character, and he always keeps you guessing. Sure, he helps people, but how much of that is altruism and how much of it is purely for his own gain? No version of the character ever definitively answers this question, because where would the fun be in that? Constantine can be a charmer or a complete asshole, but somehow he remains very appealing. His popularity has endured for several decades and clearly he still has a substantial fanbase, so who knows what the future might hold for everyone’s favorite British chain-smoking sorcerer?