News

15 Years Later, We Owe Constantine An Apology

We look back at the comic book-based Keanu Reeves vehicle that remains a sentimental cult favorite a decade and a half after its release.

by | February 18, 2020 | Comments

From epic TV crossovers like Crisis on Infinite Earths to prestige TV dramas like Watchmen and the groundbreaking and record-breaking success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s no denying the huge pop culture appeal of comic books and superheroes. But just a few years ago, things were different. Back in the early 2000s, superhero movies were seen as big risks, and quite a few of them flopped.  Coming off the failure of Catwoman and just a few months before Christopher Nolan rebooted Batman and changed the character forever with Batman Begins, Francis Lawrence made his directorial debut with a supernatural noir-thriller adaptation, Constantine.

Though some fans never forgave the movie for changing the look and sound of John Constantine from a distinctly English, blonde practitioner of the dark arts into a jet black-haired, very American Keanu Reeves, the film has sparked renewed interest in recent years, partially thanks to a resurgence of Reeves’ career — a Keanussance, if you will — and the increased popularity of a genre whose fans have learned to appreciate films that attempt to do something different with their source material. For its 15th anniversary, we clutch our crucifixes and walk down the path to Hell as we explore why Constantine not only deserves our attention, but also, from some of us, our apologies.


It’s A Noir Thriller in Addition to a Comic Book Movie

Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

The world of Constantine is one in the middle of a Cold War between two superpowers. Only, it’s not a war between two countries, but one between the literal forces of Heaven and Hell, with Earth stuck in the middle. Demons and angels can’t cross over to our plane, but “half-breeds” use humans as “finger puppets,” influencing them to do their bidding in a battle for their souls. Like a good detective story, there’s a plot in place that could end the war in disaster, and it’s only our gritty, cynical, jaded Philip Marlowe-esque protagonist who can stop the conspiracy before it brings about the end of the world. Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a man cursed with the ability to see half-breeds and other supernatural creatures, and when he crosses paths with a detective (Rachel Weisz) whose twin sister (also Weisz) committed suicide, they find themselves in the crosshairs of both demons and angels.

Though this slow-burn, mystery-focused approach didn’t connect with some fans of the comic book, it allowed for a unique film experience, as Constantine offers a religious twist on the detective story. The God of Constantine is a distant, cold, reserved and calculating figure, a constant foil to our protagonist who guides him along to find the clues, eventually saves his soul, and gives him another assignment. In other words, God Himself plays something of a surrogate femme fatale., whose unseen presence is nevertheless felt throughout the film.


The Supporting Cast Is Excellent

Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

A detective noir story is only as good as its supporting cast, and Constantine boasts an impressive ensemble on par with the blockbuster superhero movies of today. When the film begins, we meet Pruitt Taylor Vince (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Devil’s Candy) as Father Hennesy, a priest driven to drink by visions of demons, and a friend to Constantine. Shia LaBeouf plays Constantine’s young driver and eager apprentice, and Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond, Shazam!) is a sinister former witch doctor now managing a nightclub that serves as a neutral meeting ground for the forces of both Heaven and Hell. Each of them infuses the film with a grounded performance that offers an interesting contrast to the film’s more fantastical plot.

Then there’s the villains. The moment we first see Constantine walk into a church, bypass the priest, and address a mysterious figure standing by the fire as “Gabriel,” we know this is someone worth paying attention to. In one of the most interesting performances of her career, Tilda Swinton plays the archangel Gabriel as an androgynous and slightly psychotic figure who speaks in a calm, gentle voice befitting someone from a higher plane of existence. Arguably the first of her more otherworldly performances, Gabriel finds Swinton striking a perfect balance between being threatening and being a welcoming presence. And then there’s Satan himself. Early in the film Constantine is told that he is the only soul Satan will come up to collect in person, so when the film finally introduces us to the Morning Star in the form of Peter Stormare (American Gods, John Wick: Chapter 2), it’s the ace up the film’s sleeve. Stormare’s Lucifer doesn’t have horns or a pitchfork, but he shows up in a pristine white suit with boiling tar dripping from his bare feet. He taunts Constantine with a surprising gentility and odd mannerisms, fully embodying the charmer capable of convincing men to sell their souls in exchange for favors. It’s a brief role, but it’s instantly memorable.


Keanu Reeves Plays John Constantine as a Proto-John Wick

Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

John Wick is considered to be the beginning of Keanu Reeves’ recent resurgence, as the tale of an assassin-for-hire going back to work following the murder of his dog became a career-redefining moment. The thing is, fans of Constantine had already seen a preview of Reeves’ performance way back in 2005.

A hard-drinking, chain-smoking freelance exorcist, Constantine has been working for so long that his name is alternately feared and hated across Heaven and all rings of Hell. Reeves portrays Constantine as the quintessential noir anti-hero, a demon-fighting Philip Marlowe. He mutters, acts like a smartass, and generally scoffs at his existence, for he has seen too much. Yet Reeves’ Constantine never seems disturbed by what he sees; he approaches the shenanigans of the plot as if it were just another day at the office. Sound familiar? Constantine is a man who absolutely hates how good he is at his job, but he does it for personal — and arguably selfish — reasons, whether it’s revenge or a shot at ascending to Heaven when he dies. And of course, Constantine is as big a badass as John Wick, capable of conning both God and the Devil into saving his life.


It Offers a Unique Vision of Hell

Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

A movie about Hell has to show us what it actually looks like at some point, and Constantine gives us one of the best and most unique visions of the underworld. Instead of a dark void or a fiery, cavernous land, Francis Lawrence had something else entirely in mind. In an interview with Horror.com, Lawrence said that he wanted Hell to be a sort of parallel universe, replicating our world with the same buildings and streets as the Los Angeles of the film, except in a desolated nuclear wasteland. Indeed, Lawrence goes on to talk about looking at nuclear test films from the ‘40s and wanting Hell to look like an eternal nuclear blast site where nothing explodes because time is endless there.

Additionally, Constantine is filled with demons, for obvious reasons. The film shows a series of disturbing zombie-like creatures that are the stuff of nightmares, all brainless because Lawrence wanted the demons to be entities without agency, acting on instinct. This is where the film’s horror inspirations really shine, as Constantine faces the decaying spawns of hell and a monster made out of hundreds of bugs. It comes as no surprise that Lawrence would go on to direct I Am Legend, which also features zombie-like creatures, just a couple of years later.

Constantine didn’t leave the biggest mark on the history of comic book-inspired cinema, but especially at a time when those films tend to follow a standard formula, we look toward style and unique visions more than ever. In that regard, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more intriguing take on the comic book horror story than the tale of the freelance exorcist, John Constantine.


Constantine was released on February 18, 2005.

#1

Constantine (2005)
46%

#1
Adjusted Score: 53.776%
Critics Consensus: Despite solid production values and an intriguing premise, Constantine lacks the focus of another spiritual shoot-em-up: The Matrix.
Synopsis: An ordinary man with an extraordinary gift must save the planet from evil in this action-packed fantasy. Unknown to most... [More]
Directed By: Francis Lawrence

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

streaming 4/20 talk show Binge Guide comic 007 The Arrangement Interview Film Amazon Prime Video CNN Warner Bros. DC Comics Lifetime Christmas movies Trophy Talk Film Festival Disney Sneak Peek book The CW Song of Ice and Fire ratings Turner Classic Movies boxoffice TruTV Character Guide chucky 21st Century Fox Arrowverse MCU doctor who Syfy romantic comedy unscripted Britbox TCM GoT franchise Reality Elton John Emmy Nominations FOX Amazon Studios Drama OWN Classic Film Western Best and Worst concert Spring TV zombies Marvel Studios Marvel Television Heroines rotten movies we love Paramount Food Network Pop Captain marvel Television Academy war Shudder award winner composers CMT Red Carpet child's play Awards Tour Lifetime Superheroe PBS renewed TV shows Apple TV Plus Star Wars Amazon Prime Walt Disney Pictures psychological thriller NBC blockbuster Vudu joker FX on Hulu ABC Family Rom-Com Creative Arts Emmys See It Skip It TLC casting 24 frames Calendar Emmys LGBTQ foreign APB aliens Comic Book Disney+ Disney Plus tv talk Kids & Family singing competition New York Comic Con Musical Nominations El Rey Spectrum Originals Pop TV mutant TV Adult Swim Tarantino blaxploitation supernatural Teen Martial Arts The Witch game of thrones technology animated reboot hist ghosts DGA richard e. Grant Disney streaming service Sundance Now ABC spanish language Ellie Kemper Fantasy SXSW Music The Purge 2020 justice league free movies a nightmare on elm street hispanic Writers Guild of America Photos sports scary movies mockumentary Valentine's Day E3 IFC documentary serial killer Nat Geo spinoff Schedule USA Network Dark Horse Comics cancelled TV shows PaleyFest Hallmark Christmas movies disaster kids Christmas Tumblr natural history adaptation screenings police drama comedies historical drama comiccon Hear Us Out miniseries video Certified Fresh Esquire Election Star Trek Rock 45 spain Spike criterion political drama Shondaland BBC breaking bad Apple TV+ CBS dramedy Mary Poppins Returns golden globes Oscars San Diego Comic-Con halloween Discovery Channel FX Infographic Apple First Look game show cults Black Mirror die hard universal monsters Cartoon Network Animation TV Land Polls and Games travel Ghostbusters crime The Walking Dead TCA 2017 finale science fiction Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Lucasfilm Countdown dceu Paramount Network Holiday SDCC Columbia Pictures Bravo Reality Competition GIFs CW Seed Mary poppins crossover Travel Channel witnail Awards asian-american spy thriller Winners medical drama BBC America dragons sitcom green book slashers television Comedy theme song anime what to watch Tubi parents movie true crime Academy Awards Netflix 2017 YouTube Premium President American Society of Cinematographers WarnerMedia Holidays Lionsgate CBS All Access Box Office Crunchyroll 20th Century Fox docudrama Stephen King Ovation period drama X-Men Brie Larson series harry potter stoner Starz discovery facebook reviews RT History Disney Channel based on movie cooking diversity A24 canceled Avengers HBO IFC Films Marvel Musicals Winter TV MSNBC YouTube thriller SundanceTV Tomatazos VH1 Action E! DC streaming service Year in Review Rocky Marathons binge Sony Pictures Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt RT21 Sundance Endgame Disney Plus movies batman Premiere Dates strong female leads ITV cancelled Crackle Netflix Christmas movies Trailer DC Universe Chernobyl canceled TV shows TCA Winter 2020 Family stand-up comedy Mindy Kaling OneApp transformers 2015 TNT WGN Pet Sematary TBS GLAAD Cannes Thanksgiving directors DirecTV dogs name the review children's TV nature BET cats sequel dc Pride Month zombie vampires FXX Women's History Month Masterpiece Anna Paquin Comics on TV Pixar Summer Quiz Fall TV Baby Yoda psycho jamie lee curtis christmas movies social media Fox News crime thriller Black History Month A&E Sundance TV independent Universal Showtime best cartoon Nickelodeon south america NYCC screen actors guild Grammys First Reviews AMC Comedy Central quibi cars anthology Extras Video Games Mary Tyler Moore sag awards crime drama robots romance MTV YouTube Red 2018 spider-man Cosplay Mystery 2019 Funimation indie Opinion biography 71st Emmy Awards adventure cops Hulu TCA ESPN versus zero dark thirty latino Peacock 2016 Rocketman Country YA Sci-Fi politics Pirates revenge Turner Logo VICE Horror USA space Super Bowl mission: impossible TIFF Podcast LGBT HBO Max teaser comics Set visit Superheroes Trivia Freeform werewolf Hallmark toy story Amazon cancelled television Biopics dark Toys festivals History Acorn TV TV renewals Epix Mudbound cancelled TV series Watching Series National Geographic cinemax elevated horror