This movie is not good.
There’s a John Constantine TV show on currently. It’s not bad. It’s suffering from some growth pangs but if it’s given a full season, it should be able to grow into a relatively decent occult show. The jury is still out.
However, there was a also a Constantine movie. Because I’m feeling relatively warm towards the TV show, I decided to revisit the movie to see if it held up. Not really.
Both Constantine properties are based on the Hellblazer comic series from DC Comics (I totally see why both properties didn’t use the comic name, though. Let’s not invite the Hellraiser comparisons). In the comic, John Constantine is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking British occult investigator. He has two real defining traits: everyone around him gets fucked, and he’s a con man. He manipulates Heaven and Hell into various deals, tricking the higher powers for various reasons, all the while watching his friends get consumed by the forces arrayed against him.
The primary complaint for the movie, of course, is the cast. Keanu Reeves is not John Constantine in any way. He doesn’t have blonde hair and isn’t British. He also doesn’t wear a trench coat. Most complaints you’ll see about the movie are based purely on this casting choice. Keanu decided to do some weird, affected slow talking also, which was not a good idea. But, for some reason, Keanu’s name sells movies and so he gets cast in things that he shouldn’t be. He’s genuinely awful.
However, the movie generally gets props for the rest of the cast. Djimon Hounsou does a credible Papa Midnite (A voodoo priest because in supernatural entertainment, all faiths are valid). Tilda Swinton is freaking great as the angel Gabriel and Peter Stormare is a similarly great Satan. Their ten minutes at the end of the movie is pretty much the only good part. But is it?
The plot for Constantine borrows from one of the better storylines from the comic, Dangerous Habits, by Garth Ennis. In the comic, John Constantine gets cancer (I mentioned the hard-smoking part, right?). And, because of the generally terrible life he’s led, he knows he’s going to hell. He moans a lot, gets suitably drunk, and then manages to trick The First of the Fallen (OK, DC’s demon hierarchy gets kind of confusing) so that the First has a hate-on for claiming John’s soul when he finally croaks. John then proceeds to sell his soul to two other demons, which ends up triggering some issues when he finally does die. Since they all want his soul, and not wanting a war in Hell, the demons are forced to keep him alive, curing his lung cancer. John flips the devil the bird at the end. Because he don’t give a fuck.
The movie starts there, but then goes far afield. In fact, about ten minutes in, there’s a whole plot about Satan’s son being born on Earth and the cancer reasoning just gets dropped. It doesn’t play into any of the rest of the movie really. So…why even bother?
So, yeah, Satan’s son. Psychics. Blah. Blah. Blah. The plot is nothing spectacular. There’s twin magic, Rachel Weisz acts as audience surrogate getting everything explained to her, they managed to get every background detail about John Constantine wrong, and Shia LeBouf is in it. And, for whatever reason, there’s cross-emblazoned brass knuckles that hurt demons, a holy shotgun, and a sprinkler system full of holy water. Hellblazer isn’t really known for its action. In fact, there was a whole arc about Constantine using a gun once. He didn’t like it. But, we’ve got a movie with Keanu Reeves, so of course we need a holy shotgun. And that sprinkler system thing has been done in every supernatural movie since the ’80s. You’d think demons would stop hanging around inside buildings with modern fire extinguishing systems.
At the end of the movie, we sort of return to the original source material as Constantine slits his wrists and begins bleeding out. Satan shows up because John’s soul is one that he’d make the trip to claim (which I’d totally buy, based on how many times Constantine has grifted him in the past). Constantine then convinces the devil to stop his son from being born in the world because…well, I don’t really know. There was some talk about a truce between Heaven and Hell but that really wasn’t referenced again after the first half hour so I’m not sure why Satan didn’t want his son to walk the earth. He hates kids, maybe? Satan decides to give John a boon because Satan is a swell guy and John wishes for Rachel Weisz’s twin to be freed from hell. Satan readily agrees and John dies (but not before giving Satan the finger) where he goes to Heaven….wait, what?
Yup, it’s the ol’ self sacrifice shtick. The way Christianity works in movies is that, if you sacrifice yourself for someone else, you get to go to Heaven. Could we get this right just once, please? All the supernatural entertainment is pretty much based on Roman Catholicism because Protestants didn’t really bother coming up with any mystic stuff. Protestants are pretty much “there is a Heaven, there is a Hell, there are angels and demons but we don’t know how they work. Oh, and there’s speaking in tongues.” Whereas Catholics named all the angels and demons, devised elaborate hierarchies, attribute miraculous powers to saint relics, and came up with a whole mystic tradition. Which is much more rich for supernatural entertainment so I totally get why everyone uses it. But, could we at least get Catholic doctrine correct? Catholics don’t believe that good works will get you to Heaven – it’s a combination of good works and faith (“Faith” being generally interpreted as surrendering your will to God, but that can get tricky, especially in a universe where John Constantine has irrefutable proof that angels and demons exist). And there’s certainly no clause about self-sacrifice being the one good work that trumps all others.
Back to the movie, Satan is all like “Woah, when I granted your request I totally had no idea that this would get you into Heaven, even though I’ve been doing this for 5000 years (because that’s how old the world is, dontcha know).” So he cures John’s cancer so that he’ll live and have plenty of time to damn himself again. I guess he also pumped a few liters of blood into him and healed his wrists, even though that’s never shown. I mean, that’s how he actually died, not the cancer. Silly Satan.
So, yeah, I didn’t like this movie. It took a decent storyline and then didn’t do anything with it. Then, it made an action movie with dodgy Catholic doctrine. I’m all for comic movies telling their own stories and changing the mythology of the comics to make a better story. One of the benefits of comics is that there’s so many stories from so many different people that there’s really no reason to get upset when someone else tells a new story with those characters. And, to be fair, the original Dangerous Habits storyline by itself wouldn’t make for a good movie as it’s pretty much a guy whining about how life isn’t fair for six issues. But there’s more to salvage from that story than the movie bothered to do. I’m also pretty tired of people borrowing Catholic mysticism and then not even getting that right. And I’m not even Catholic.