Shiny Shelf


By Mark Clapham on 17 March 2005

If there’s a fanboy baiting sin that a comic book adaptation can make, this Keanu Reeves vehicle based around John Constantine, the Alan Moore-created star of the ‘Hellblazer’ comic makes it. Virtually everything about this version of Constantine is wrong – wrong nationality, wrong hair colour, wrong motivations. Virtually all the supporting characters are, in one way or another, radically different to their comic book counterparts. However, behind all the tangible changes to the material, somehow ‘Constantine’ gets something intangible, the spirit of the original, exactly right.

For a start, Keanu moves on from his pretty-boy and action hero phases to become a surprisingly convincing John Constantine. Stick-thin but beginning to look his age, dressed in crumpled suit and trenchcoat, hair unflatteringly fluffed up, Reeves looks like a Sean Phillips drawing made flesh, wiry and lined. He moves with a shifty confidence that is pure Constantine, and uses his trademark flat/deadpan (delete as preferable) deadpan drawl to great effect in dropping sardonic one-liners. Yes, Iain Glen would have brought some British working class grit to the character, but as Hollywood versions of ‘difficult’ characters go, Reeves is far better than we have a right to expect.

(Furthermore, Constantine was physically modelled on tantric bore Sting, and surely even the most ardent purist wouldn’t want another demonstration of ‘acting’ from the warbling dullard, regardless of authenticity?)

Attempts to do the urban magic in the everyday world schtick so beloved of Vertigo comics in the mass media have often faltered in the past, either drifting into pure fantasy (the ‘Buffy’ world, where there’s a funny-faced demon on every street corner), high camp (‘Charmed’, anyone?), convoluted (‘Lord of Illusions’) or just plain dull (‘Hex’). The magic in ‘Constantine’ is sufficiently low-key that it could convincingly underlie the modern world without anyone noticing, but sufficiently spectacular when cut loose to be more than mystic mumbling. What’s more, the script actually manages to set up rules for the magic in the film that make sense and are sufficiently explained for even the slowest or most literally-minded viewer to grasp. Thankfully, these rules are then stuck to throughout, never drifting into cop-out ‘magic can do anything’ gibberish.

The plot combines a couple of the comic book stories and a few new bits to tell a straightforward story of a conspiracy to create hell on Earth with that bog-standard occult plot device, the Spear of Destiny. While the apocalyptic plot is going on, Constantine himself has to face his personal doom, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. There’s the usual spiritual business about redemption and what have you, and a certain amount of rigid Catholic dogma in there, but really all the religious stuff is an excuse to have some fantastical creatures, a very stylish vision of Hell, and some very effective action sequences.

‘Constantine’ clips along at a good pace, and is never less than entertaining. The action sequences are well-achieved and exciting, without ever turning Constantine into a straightforward action hero. In spite of the comprehensive relocation to the USA, the film manages to retain a peculiar, mordant and strangely British wit, something brought out by the quirky casting. Reeves, as discussed, nails Constantine’s bleak humour well, while Tilda Swinton is camp but oddly convincing as the angel Gabriel. Rachel Weisz is kind of hysterical as a tough cop, an American accent unable to entirely conceal her cut glass hockeysticks enunciation. Gavin Rossdale (formerly of lame rockers Bush) is adequate as a well-tailored demon, while Djimon Hounsou is, as usual, very dignified and very African as the dignified African magician Papa Midnite. Hounsou’s an effective presence but very softly spoken, rendered almost inaudible due to some poor sound-mixing – something that will hopefully be fixed for the DVD.

There’s one other cast member worth mentioning, but as he’s in the final reel and a lot of fun, I won’t spoil it, except to say that it’s brilliant, brilliant casting.

‘Constantine’ is a fun film, and hopefully signs of a renaissance in DC Comics adaptations after the notorious ‘Catwoman’. It makes a lot of changes to become a Hollywood movie, but is nonetheless instantly recognisable as being derived from ‘Hellblazer’. Warners already want a sequel, so here’s my bid – ‘Critical Mass’ or ‘Red Sepulchre’ would be great sources of material, guys.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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