Honestly, watching Constantine left me with more questions than answers. As one of the dwindling number of comic book super hero movies I hadn’t seen, this has been on my radar ever since it came out 18 years ago. And yet, back then people HATED Constantine. On the other hand, it was really trendy to make fun of Keanu Reeves in those days too, and we all know how wrong the haters were. Now Constantine is a cult classic with some passionate fans and maybe a sequel coming someday. But also, it’s a mid-2000s Alan Moore adaptation, and those tended to always miss the point. So I didn’t know if I would like it or not, and that kept me away until John dared me to take it on. And now that I’m on the other side, I still don’t know how to feel!
A lot of that uncertainty is reflected in the production of Constantine. In 2005, super hero movies – especially R-rated super hero movies – weren’t really a thing. There was X-Men and Spider-Man and that was pretty much it, everything else was kind of a flop. Movies based on DC Comics dried up in 1997 with the brutal one-two punch of Batman & Robin and Steel, only to be miserably revived in 2004 with Catwoman. Released a few months before Batman Begins, Constantine‘s loose association with DC probably didn’t help it at all.
Nor did its stars. While we all love Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz today, in 2005 we were a lot meaner. Keanu Reeves was coming off the Matrix sequels, which I defend but are generally considered disappointing, as well as panned performances in Hardball and Something’s Gotta Give. Despite a proven track record as a top-tier action star, Keanu had become a punching bag. Similarly, Rachel Weisz was in the middle of the Mummy trilogy and finding her place in Hollywood. The movie she did before Constantine was Envy, a Ben Stiller/Jack Black comedy that’s so far from the indie darlings she’s known for now and one of the few movies I think John liked less than Constantine.
So: a brand that no one cares about, a tricky R-rating, and stars that aren’t shining as bright as they should – no wonder Warner Bros dumped this in February. With all those knocks against it, the fact that Constantine went out and did solidly at the box office is pretty impressive. $230 million worldwide against a $70-100 million budget, not a win but far from a bomb. So is this a secret classic? I can’t decide!
Constantine opens with some fun possession scenes: somewhere in Mexico a man digs up the Spear o’ Destiny, starts a killing spree, and heads to Los Angeles, where John Constantine does a speed run of The Exorcist on a young woman who’s been possessed by a devil that’s trying to break into the mortal world. This alarms the chain smoking occult expert because there’s a treaty between Heaven and Hell that should make it impossible for demons to escape Hell. So Constantine starts looking for leads, reaching out to his network of religious experts including a drunkard priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an archangel (Tilda Swinton), a witch doctor (Djimon Hounsou, of course), and his cabby (Shia LaBeouf). Meanwhile, atop a psychiatric hospital, a troubled young woman named Isabel (Rachel Weisz) calls out for Constantine and leaps to her death. Angela (also Weisz), a detective with precognitive powers and Isabel’s twin sister, begins to investigate her death, since her deeply Catholic sister would never commit suicide and be damned to Hell. As you might expect, it doesn’t take long for Constantine and Angela to realize they’re both on the same trail.
The plot goes in some directions, most of which are fun, but ultimately comes to a conclusion that I just don’t understand. I want to complain about that a lot, but I also think I might be wrong to care. I know it changes a lot from the comics, but I haven’t read those so I have no right to invoke them. As a detective story, Constantine borrows from the film noir tradition, and those stories often have complex, deliberately confusing, exposition-heavy stories. Plus there’s so much religious stuff in this story and that opens up two annoying answers for my confusion 1) you’ve got to take it on faith and 2) the Lord works in mysterious ways. So maybe that’s the point?
So it’s a movie with fun Hell effects and some cool demons and a hilarious golden cross gun. It’s got a decent sense of humor and, since I didn’t hit this harder earlier, Tilda Swinton at the height of her powers as an androgynous archangel. I guess what I’m saying is I could imagine myself really liking this upon repeated viewings. But I’m not there after round one. And it took my nearly two decades to get to here. Who knows if I’ll ever come back?