Fall is finally in full swing and with it comes the usual slew of new network and cable TV shows vying for our attention and interest. If you’re a comic book fan who also happens to be a couch potato with a lot of free time or unlimited space on your DVR, then this is certainly your year. I can’t think of another time in recent memory where so many new and returning shows on the fall schedule have been based in some way on a comic book property. Aside from returning favorites like Walking Dead, Agents of Shield, and Arrow, we’re also being treated to a few rookies like FOX’s Gotham and the CW’s Arrow spin-off The Flash. And before you think that DC has the upper hand, let’s not forget that Marvel has their Captain America-inspired Agent Carter series premiering next year.
With so many comic book shows now in our midst, it’s possible that some lesser known may end up falling through the cracks. The show I’m most concerned for while also being most curious about is NBC’s upcoming Constantine (premiering Oct. 24th). Despite a great premise and a teaser that indicates it will try and stay at least fairly close to it’s comic book roots, Constantine has several factors going against it that may lead to an uphill battle for ratings. The most obvious issue is name-recognition. Both Gotham and The Flash have the advantage of being based off of well known and established properties and the upcoming Agent Carter has already been established in two Captain America films and a Marvel One-Shot that appeared on the Iron Man 3 DVD/Blu Ray. On the other hand, Constantine comes to us based off of what most would consider a cult book from DC’s mature Vertigo line. The fan base, while dedicated, is bound to be a bit more limited. And aside from that, they didn’t even use the name of the comic. So as far as name recognition, Hellblazer fans might have a difficult time picking up on this.
Wait…this is starting to sound damned familiar. I feel like I’ve said this all before. Oh wait…that’s because I have. Almost ten years ago the same issues plagued a project with the exact same name, based off of the exact same comic. Except rather then an upcoming TV project, this Constantine was a multi-million dollar motion picture starring Keanu Reeves. With a budget of approximately $100 Million, the film grossed “only” $75 Million in the US, sinking any hopes for a sequel. In the intervening years, reaction to the film from comic fans has tended to be, at best, lukewarm and often terrible. I’ve seen Constantine hold a spot in several top 10 worst comic book movie lists, so it’s a fairly safe assumption that most don’t hold the film in too high a regard.
This is the point where I throw down the gauntlet and confess that I love Constantine. I loved it when I first saw it in theaters (yes, I was one of them) and my opinion has not changed over the years after additional viewings. So in light of the forthcoming TV Series, I thought it would be appropriate to give a second look at DC’s first attempt to bring the character of John Constantine to life.
For the uninitiated, John Constantine is an uber-cynical, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking occult detective/magician based in Liverpool, England. Jim Butcher fans can think of him as sort of an unofficial cousin to Harry Dresden. Constantine was actually created by Alan Moore back during his now-classic run on DC’s Swamp Thing, first appearing in issue #25 back in 1984. His popularity as a supporting character eventually led to his own series in 1988 called Hellblazer, and it’s off of this book that both the 2005 film and the upcoming TV series are based.
Probably the first and foremost criticism I usually hear in regards to the film is that it doesn’t adhear to the comic. This seems to be the standard default complaint people usually have about any film or TV show based on their favorite comic. In most cases I tend to agree, but in the case of Constantine I’ve never been able to fully understand this complaint.
While not based on any single specific story from the Hellblazer comic, Constantine does take scenes and plot elements from several stories throughout the books run. The most obvious is Constantine’s cancer diagnosis, taken from the “Dangerous Habits” storyline featured in Hellblazer issues #41-46. Aside from some tweaks made for the sake of the film’s overall plot, the major points of the storyline remain essentially the same, even with a variation of the story’s conclusion being nicely worked in as a conclusion to the film’s other plotlines.
Aside from that we even get at least one sequence that is inspired directly from a similar scene in the books. At the beginning of the very first issue of Hellblazer titled “Hunger” (1988), a man named Henry Wambach finds himself filled with an insatiable hunger and begins eating everything in sight at a local restaurant, even to the point of trying to chow down on some of the patrons. He eventually collapses and dies of starvation despite the massive amount of food he’s eaten.
In the film, Constantine’s associate Hennessy is the victim of a similar incident. Hennessy is a priest who also has the ability to communicate with the dead. In order to block out all the voices in his head (or at least that’s the excuse he gives himself) he drinks…a lot. Finding that Hennessy is interfering too much in his affairs, the demon Balthazar casts an incantation causing Hennessy to be overcome with an unquenchable thirst. He stumbles into a liquor store and attempts to chug any bottle he can get his hands on but finds none of them willing to relinquish their contents. He eventually collapses and dies, apparently having actually drowned himself in alcohol.
Combined with all of this, we also have the appearance of several characters from the book including Djimon Hounsou as Papa Midnite, Shia LaBeouf as Chas (Chandler in the comic, Kramer in the movie), Peter Stormare as Lucifer, and Tilda Swinton in her ultimate androgynous role as Gabriel. A cast like that isn’t anything to laugh at. Hell, even Gavin Rossdale as Balthazar ends up being really good in this thing.
Admittedly there are a number of changes made from the original source material, but they are mostly cosmetic, and I’ve always been a believer that changes like this are fine and forgivable as long as the spirit of the original is maintained. So small things like changing Chas’s age and last name or changing the setting from Liverpool to Los Angeles don’t both me very much. And to be fair, the book wasn’t always exclusively based in England anyway. The biggest change (and most fans biggest issue) has to do with John Constantine himself. This is the point where we get to talk about the elephant in the room…Keanu.
Fans of the comic know that visually, John Constantine (pronounced ConstanTIEne in the book, but ConstanTEEN in the film) is a blonde-haired Englishman with a tan trenchcoat bearing a striking resemblance to pop-singer Sting. Based on that alone, Keanu Reeves is at three strikes and out. Even so, though his physical appearance and accent may be different, I’ve never had an issue with how Keanu played the part. Before anyone gets too angry, let me first point out that I’m no major fan of Keanu Reeves as an actor. While I’m as big of a Bill & Ted fan as anyone, most of his other performances have generally left me either indifferent (The Matrix) or angry (don’t get me started on his Jonathan Harker in Coppala’s Dracula).
And yet…and yet…there’s something about the way he portrays Constantine that completely won me over. This brings us back to the whole idea of cosmetic changes not mattering as long as the spirit of the piece (or in this chase, character) is retained. And I honestly feel that Keanu nails the spirit and attitude of who John Constantine is.
Throughout the film, Keanu manages to convey a whole bevy of emotions that I didn’t think he was capable of doing. He’s cynical and sarcastic to the Nth degree, but also conveys a great sense of loneliness and fear. One of the things I always loved about the film is this idea that Constantine is able to surround himself with people that are so close to being actual “friends,” but always manages to keep himself closed off enough that he never fully lets them in. This actually works very well in his relationship with Angela (Rachel Weisz), as she slowly starts to become the first person he really fully let’s into his world.
As far as the sarcasm and cynicism…he’s spot on. For me, the defining moment in the film that truly shows Keanu’s grasp on the character is shortly after he’s been diagnosed with cancer. Sitting alone in his apartment, having a drink and still smoking his cancer sticks, he notices a spider scuttling across the table. He takes his empty glass and covers the spider, lifting it up just enough to exhale his cigarette smoke into the glass, enveloping the spider. Observing the spider’s actions, he says, “Welcome to my world.” That moment sums up Constantine to me as a character; though a close runner up would have to be the moment that he takes while being lifted to Heaven to look back and flip off Lucifer.
In addition, Keanu also sells the idea that he’s a seasoned freelance exorcist. There’s a great casualness to the way he performs his exorcisms and employs his mystical weapons that show that while it may be new and fantastical to us, these things are old-hand to him. The character of Angela is essentially us (the audience), there to react with shock and amazement at everything that’s going on around, but to John Constantine it’s just another day at the office.
I’ve known people to complain about the added backstory that was given to Constantine for the film that never existed in the comic; specifically the idea that he has the ability to see disguised demons for what they really are and that ability leading to his attempted suicide in his youth. Again, I’ve never had any issue with this. For the sake of what would likely have been (and was) a single stand-alone movie, you need to give your character an arc. There has to be something more to Constantine then just the desire to fight the forces of darkness while also being a prick. This added backstory gives us that and gives him an arc and a journey that culminates beautifully at the end of the film and also remains true to the nature of the character.
In this day and age, I think we’ve allowed ourselves to be a tad spoiled by the comic book movies and TV shows of today. Keep in mind that Constantine predates the original Iron Man by three years and came out in the same summer as Batman Begins. To think that at that time we’d actually get a film version of Hellblazer is amazing. And to have one that sticks as close as it does to the original material is kind of a miracle. I’ve no idea what we have in store for us with NBC’s upcoming take on the character. All I know is that if it sucks, I still have a great movie I can always revisit if need be.
To put it in his own words: “This is Constantine. John Constantine…asshole.”