VOD film review: Constantine (2005)
Ivan Radford | On 02, Sep 2021
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf
Where to watch Constantine online in the UK: Netflix UK / Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
“This is Constantine. John Constantine, asshole.” That’s the sound of Keanu Reeves stepping into the shoes of the iconic eponymous detective for 2005’s Constantine. When released, he was derided for being nothing like the Constantine of the graphic novels upon which the film was based – given that Hellblazer’s one of the longest-running non-superhero comics around, it’s perhaps no surprise that the stakes, and expectations, set a high bar. But it’s also one of the most distinctive and underrated outings for the John Wick star.
The film introduces us to a world where a standing wager is in place between God and Lucifer for the souls of humankind. In between them, to some degree, is Constantine, an occult detective who is trying to find redemption with Heaven by tracking down demons on Earth and dispatching them back to Hell. We catch up with him as he takes care of his latest case of possession, but can’t curry favour with God because he’s doing his good deeds for selfish reasons. All the while, the number of demons managing to cross over into this world, despite the truce in place, hints at something darker that’s afoot.
It’s precisely the kind of thematically rich material that makes the DC Comics character such an interesting read, from morals warped by twisted logic to opportunistic dark forces trying to game the divine system. Constantine, meanwhile, outplays them all, bargaining his way from an eternity of damnation, even as he becomes increasingly weary from the effort do so.
Borrowing elements from the Dangerous Habits and Original Sins comic arcs, Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello’s script stays true in spirit to the source material, but fuses it with a noir-tinged detective story that gives the narrative a cinema-friendly shape. Into this unravelling conspiracy tumble two sisters, Angela Dodson and Isabel Dodson (both played by Rachel Weisz), the former investigating the latter’s suicide, Constantine’s naive sidekick, Chas Kramer (Shia LaBeouf), a priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince) with a drinking problem and a nightclub owner (Djimon Hounsou) with a knack for staying neutral. It’s a colourful medley of familiar characters and intriguing eccentrics, with Weisz in particular providing both the driving force of the narrative and the film’s emotional weight.
But the talented cast also ground the film as it becomes increasingly fantastical, and director Francis Lawrence balances the grit and the unearthly spectacle with an impressive confidence, given this is his feature debut. His vision of Hell, closer to a nuclear human wasteland than fire and brimstone, is a disturbing, unsettling blast of desolate horror, while his take on the Devil (played by Peter Stormare) presents evil in a spotless white suit with tar-covered feet. The opening set piece, which involves a nifty use of a mirror, is visually stunning and sets the tone for a movie that places the emphasis on pragmatism as much as magic. And, summing up the eerie vibe at the film’s heart, is the inspired casting decision to get Tilda Swinton to play the archangel Gabriel as an androgynous, imperious and surprisingly ambiguous figure.
All these promising touches, though, were overshadowed in 2005 by the hiring of Keanu Reeves in the lead role. Changing Constantine from a Liverpool-born magician-slash-con artist to a Los Angeles-living exorcist, his version of the character is, on the surface, markedly different – and not just because he sports a suit and black hair instead of a trench coat and blonde hair. But while Constantine here is less of a trickster than Matt Ryan’s superb Arrowverse incarnation, he has a cynicism that chimes in with Constantine’s worldview. Reeves balances that deadpan sarcasm with a muted sensitivity, which makes his hard-boiled antihero a sympathetic loner we want to spend time with. His charismatic presence means the script doesn’t need to labour through exposition and origins stories – there’s oodles of world-building to admire, but Constantine is a film that gets on with its story rather than worry about setting up sequels. The result is an adaptation that dares to do its own thing – a piece of smouldering pulp that, taken on its own terms, still lingers in the memory more than 15 years on.