R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: DC's Big Comeback Part 1: Constantine

I remember standing in a bookstore one day talking to a friend of mine and we were standing next to a display of D.C. Comics. A little kid came up to the display and was eyeing the books, when a guy who I’m guessing was his big brother grabbed him as if he were saving him from burning himself on an open flame. “We’re a Marvel family,” is all the guy said as he seemed to whisk the child away before he could be infected by the masterful storytelling of Mark Wade’s Superman: Birthright and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

My friend and I stood there in stunned silence, not believing this public display of Marvel affection. But then I thought about it, and while I don’t know that I’ve ever been that fanatical, I can understand. When it comes to my own tastes in the Graphic Literature department, I’ve just always been a DC guy. It was probably due to Superman being the only superhero I was exposed to for the earlier portions of my life, but DC’s heroes have always appealed to me more than the titans of Marvel. Not that I don’t read Marvel or tell people to avoid it.

DC is just my thing. That’s why it’s was really painful the last few years to see Marvel churning out properties and making hundreds of millions of dollars, while my beloved heroes wallowed in mediocrity and development hell. Joel Schumacher killed off the Caped Crusader for audiences and Producer Jon Peters was trying to take the cape off of Superman. When DC finally did release a movie it was an unmitigated disaster as Catwoman couldn’t hold a candle to Marvel super hits such as Spider-Man 2 and X2: X-Men United.

In 2005, the ship at DC and Warner Brothers finally started to right itself. Few theater experiences over the last few years were as satisfying as Batman Begins. Much of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One made it up on screen, giving it more gravitas than any previous Batman entry.

Superman Returns looks to triumphantly bring the Man of Steel back to the big screen, but DC’s re-emergence hasn’t been due to their heroes clad in tights. Much like it has provided an alternative to your stereotypical Comic Book reading for over a decade, DC’s Vertigo line has helped bring more mature Comic Book properties to the screen.
In the last two years two Comic Book labels under the Vertigo line have been brought to the big screen. Coincidentally enough, both were created by writer Alan Moore, who had previously had a hellish time in regards to adaptation of his creations, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. As a result, when entertaining versions of his works finally reached the screen, Moore wanted nothing to do with the process. This is unfortunate, because when the reclusive writer could have finally received some acclaim from the movie going public, his credit was nowhere to be seen.

Constantine. Starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz. Directed by Francis Lawrence.

Now some of you might be saying “Rob, I don’t remember any DC Comic named Constantine.” And you would be correct. Constantine is an adaptation of Hellblazer, the long running comic series that starred the character John Constantine. The character was created by Alan Moore on his run of Swamp Thing. Constantine’s comic series was initially going to be entitled Hellraiser, but was beat to the punch by Clive Barker’s series of Pinhead movies. It was also due to Barker’s series that when Hellblazer finally did make it to the screen execs thought the title was way too close to the horror franchise, so the name was changed to Constantine. And that’s not all that was changed…

First off, the character was conceived in the comics because Alan Moore’s artists at the time, Stephen R. Bissette and John Totleben, wanted to create a character that looked like Sting from the Police. They were big fans, even putting the character in a rowboat at one point called “The Honorable Gordon Sumner”, which is Sting’s real name. Of course, the character on screen isn’t the blonde Englishman he is in the pages of DC; he’s an American with jet-black hair. Even worse, according to imdb.com the first actor cast to play Constantine was Nic “Someone is bound to put me in one of these Comic Book movies eventually” Cage. Thankfully that crisis was averted and we ended up with Keanu Reeves in the role. Wait, did I just write that? Has anyone ever written that before?

At any rate, even with the character being changed so dramatically, as he’s now an American living in L.A. instead of a Londoner, and he’s less ambiguous than before, there’s still so much of John Constantine that remains intact. He’s still a bit of a freelance witch doctor and exorcist, kind of like the Ghostbusters only not as goofy. Most importantly his off color humor is still fully on display. John is a smartass, giving the middle finger to both angels and demons both metaphorically and literally.

This is actually a pretty decent role for Reeves. Constantine is a quiet, brooding man, speaking only to piss off others. He’s not really a man of action either, he clumsily fights his way through bouts with demons, using the tools of his trade (amulets, trinkets, and Christmas ornaments filled with holy water) whenever he can. While Reeves may have won legions of fans (and detractors) after he was made the focus of The Matrix Trilogy, I think I much prefer his more subtle turn here. This is a man dying of cancer, who’s tired of fighting for a God that doesn’t really want him. I think that’s a depth that Neo was never able to achieve.

Here, Constantine has to battle for the soul of Angela Dodson, who is the target of the son of Satan. It’s a lot of mumbo jumbo, but it’s done well enough that the film is constantly entertaining and only stops for character moments. The film’s mythology may be a bit complicated, but it’s never boring.

One of the film’s biggest strengths is the mood that director Francis Lawrence instills in the picture. In his feature film debut, Lawrence makes a pretty decent Horror film with plenty of flash (the scenes in Hell are particularly effective) and the requisite amount of darkness, but what’s surprising is that there’s plenty of quirk to go around. The film takes the time for little jokey moments, but not at the expense of the film’s tone or pace. Unlike, Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy, which is a good movie, but went more Indiana Jones than it should have, Constantine concentrates on atmosphere. This film tries to take itself semi-seriously, which is important to a project like this. Lawrence immerses you in this world and you believe what’s going on while it’s on screen.

I was very surprised to find just how many rich characters there are here. The character closest to his Comic Book origin is Djimon Hounsou’s Papa Midnite, who owns a club that is like the Switzerland of the war between Heaven and Hell. He’s cool and collected, does what he can to help Constantine while trying to maintain order in his place of business. You can feel that the character’s ruthlessness is just under the surface, much like he was on the page, but he’s got a soft spot for Constantine and can’t help but like him.

Perhaps the film’s most memorable character (and definitely my favorite), despite not getting enough screen time, is Tilda Swinton’s androgynous turn as the angel Gabriel. I love every moment she’s onscreen, as she perfectly represents the irreverent spirit of many of my favorite Vertigo titles, including Preacher, Sandman, and Transmetropolitan. These are works that are often blasphemous, but are infused with an energy that gives them a true artistic spirit that has them rise above the vulgarity and violence. Gabriel is a character that pretends piety at times and yet doesn’t mince words, telling Constantine at one point that he’s “F*cked”.

Rachel Weisz finally broke free from the Mummy films here and does an admirable job of being the straight character amidst the weirdoes. I would almost compare her to Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters, only Weisz doesn’t get to fool around like Weaver did with Bill Murray. She’s got to be the serious one, but it never feels forced.

I like that all of Constantine’s associates and enemies have plenty of personality, from his argumentative associate Chas Kramer (Shia LaBeouf) to the demon Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale). Each is given enough screen time to make them more than just fluff characters, and that’s quite admirable considering how many people are actually cast. Character actors such as Peter Stormare, Max Baker, and Pruitt Taylor Vince are also all welcome additions and all seem to be having fun here with their roles.

Constantine just shocked the hell out of me, because I wasn’t expecting much. Instead of a Matrix rip off, I got a film that really got across the world of DC/Vertigo and hopefully will lead to more entries. I’d love to see Warner Brothers tackle Preacher or Sandman on the big-screen now and have confidence that the films wouldn’t be another Catwoman.

When I started this column, I had intended to go over all of the film’s that were even remotely associated with Alan Moore such as Swamp Thing, LXG, From Hell, Constantine and V For Vendetta. Then I was just going to do the last two, but it ended up that Constantine was enough for a whole column, so next week, if I don’t just do a big ode to Superman Returns, expect a look at V For Vendetta and the rest of my thoughts on DC Comics’ triumphant return to cinemas.