John Constantine was created in 1985 by mad genius Alan Moore as a supporting character in the Swamp Thing comic book. The character, a snarky, chain-smoking Liverpudlian magician, proved extremely popular, and in 1988 was given his own title, the landmark series Hellblazer. Over the next 25 years, Hellblazer would prove one of the best and most important comic books out there, carrying on the work Swamp Thing had done to make graphic storytelling more mature and intelligent, and ending up as the flagship book for DC Comics’ mature readers imprint, Vertigo. While never selling as well as most mainstream DC titles, Constantine has been a consistently popular character over the years, and in 2005, with the comic book movie boom really getting underway, they decided to have a go at giving him his own film.
Played by Keanu Reeves, Constantine in the film lives in LA, and spends his time exorcising demons in a bid to absolve himself of his sins and get into Heaven when he dies. It becomes apparent that his death is not far off, as his chain-smoking has given him terminal lung cancer “ a plot point borrowed from Garth Ennis’ fantastic Dangerous Habits storyline. Meanwhile, the Spear of Destiny, which pierced Jesus’ side when he was on the cross, has been stolen in a bid by the denizens of Hell to come through to Earth and take it over. For a moment it looks like it’s going to be Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Exorcist, which I could have gotten on board with. However.
There are a lot of problems with Constantine, all of which can be traced back to the fact that the screenplay has no idea who John Constantine is supposed to be, as evidenced by the utterly baffling casting of Keanu Reeves. Pointing out that Reeves has the emotional range of a bowl of cold porridge seems a bit redundant at this point, but it bears repeating here, as he is truly awful in the role. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that practically anyone else would have been a better John Constantine than him. He spends the whole film sounding bored out of his mind, even when arguing with the angel Gabriel (an enjoyably androgynous Tilda Swinton) that he deserves to go to Heaven when he dies. More importantly, there’s no humour to him at all, and for a character who is supposed to be sarcastic and witty, that’s a big problem; all his wise-cracks fall completely flat because of Reeves’ dull, bored and boring voice. The film as a whole lacks humour as well, which is a particular shame as black comedy was often a big part of Hellblazer.
While adaptations ought to be judged on their own merits, in this case I just can’t. Cards on the table: I love Hellblazer. It’s one of my favourite comics, and Constantine is one of my favourite characters. And the guy in this film just isn’t Constantine; and it’s not just that he shouldn’t be American. He explains to Rachel Weisz’s policewoman Angela Dodson that he protects the balance between Heaven and Hell on Earth, and if any demon breaks the rules, he deports them back to Hell. I’m not sure which is worse, that he’s explicitly on the side of the angels or that he’s a glorified immigration officer. A character who should be a con man and trickster “ who, in the comics, once defeated the demon lord Nergal by winning a game of poker “ here uses holy water hand grenades, crucifix-stamped knuckle-dusters, and, in the film’s second stupidest scene, a crucifix-shaped shotgun with which he blows away a small army of demons. The stupidest scene is the bit at the end where he adopts a Jesus pose. At least he gets to give Satan the middle finger while doing it.
It all reeks of the Hollywoodisation of the source material, when so much of what made Hellblazer interesting was that it was set in Britain and had a very British attitude. Can’t have a Liverpudlian protagonist, let’s base him in LA. He’s meant to be a bit of a bastard and strictly neutral, but let’s make him basically all right and to all intents and purposes a warrior for God. The whole thing is very safe, taking no risks, doing nothing interesting and content to be a slightly more action-flavoured exorcism movie. Nowhere is the Hollywood influence clearer than the transformation of Chas “ in the comics, he’s John’s oldest friend and sometime driver; but in the film, he’s become a kid sidekick played by Shia LaBeouf.
Still, despite a plot which is at once unnecessarily convoluted and actually very simple when you get down to it, it’s not that bad a film on its own merits. It looks good and the visual effects are impressive, Hell in particular being very well realised, even if it resembles nothing so much as the nuclear nightmare from Terminator 2. The supporting cast are generally good, Tilda Swinton as Gabriel and Djimon Hounsou as Papa Midnite being the standouts. There are some nice references to the comics as well, like a demon clearly based, visually if nothing else, on the hunger entity Mnemoth. Unfortunately, Keanu then goes and defeats it by punching it in the face.
So, as a standalone film, it’s passable. As an adaptation of Hellblazer, it’s a catastrophe. John even gives up smoking by the end.