Published Mar 27, 2013Keanu Reeves is far from a versatile actor but there are certain roles – Neo in The Matrix and Johnny Utah in Point Break are a couple – that his unflappable blankness feels perfectly suited for. John Constantine is not one of them.
A quintessentially British icon from the now defunct Vertigo line of comics (essentially the HBO of the graphic novel world), the occult specialist is a clever, jaded, sarcastic prick visually patterned after Sting. Now try to imagine Mr. "Woah!" pulling off a convincing Liverpool accent and sporting slicked back blond hair.
To avoid the unintentional hilarity an attempt by Reeves to adapt to that character model would inevitably cause, professional cinematic hatchet man, Francis Lawrence, warped the character to fit his star. It was here that the studio shill director first employed his knack for neutering the content of highly intelligent and respected horror texts (his complete gutting of I Am Legend is downright sacrilegious) to make them more palatable for theatre-going sheep; the sorts of folks that lose all sense of discernment when presented with a few pretty images.
Trying to placate the outrage of Hellblazer fans (the comic Constantine is the star of), Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello were hired to adapted the series' most celebrated story arc, penned by eventual Preacher author, Garth Ennis, in which the chain-smoking demon hunter finds out he has developed terminal lung cancer.
Since the film doubles as an anti-smoking PSA – a Surgeon General's warning is blasted into the foreground a one point – the hero's relentless butt huffing was easier for the censors to swallow. That public health admonitory is one of the only elements borrowed from the story, though. The rest of the plot focuses on a bunch of convoluted theology involving the spear that perforated Jesus's bowels, a naughty angel and psychic twins as essential parts of a ritual to allow a powerful demon to manifest on Earth.
As is often the case with adaptations containing a wealth of mythology to draw from, Constantine crams in far too many characters, especially for a story about a self-loathing lone wolf who's dangerous to be around.
Most unnecessary of these is the inclusion of a young Shia LaBeouf as an insufferable cut-rate Short Round type side kick and a paranormal doohickey slinger that hews a little too close to James Bond's gadget man, Q, for comfort. Djimon Hounsou was solidly cast as neutral voodoo bar owner, Papa Midnight, but there's little time to make use of him with the roulette wheel of cronies put in harm's way by their association with hell's least favourite occult detective.
On the plus side, the demons are relatively well designed, and Lawrence makes good use of simple and more elaborate special effects alike. A few grains of the caustic morality that gave the comics their edge survive – equating God to a kid with an ant farm and double-crossing the devil, for example – but implications about the dire consequences of selfishly pretending to be something you're not in order to fit in aren't given enough room to breathe.
Frustrating matters further, smart people frequently have to do dumb things for the sake of plot, the internal rules of the supernatural are a little disjointed, and all the moralizing about suicide grows tiresome.
If it was just some random gothic action horror flick, the gaping plot holes and cumbersome contrivances would still have made Constantine little more than a passable big-budget B-movie but as an adaptation of a seminal adult comic series, it's another example of how easily things can go wrong in the care of people ill-suited to handle a beloved property.
Constantine screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Whoa: The Films of Keanu Reeves retrospective at 9:15pm on March 29th, 2013. (Warner)