Here’s something to think about: When was the last time we had a “typical Superhero” movie. That is to say, a movie that the majority of critics informed of it’s comic book origins were not compelled to describe using the sentence: “______ isn’t your typical Superhero.”
Here’s the thing: They say that about almost every comic book-based movie that comes down the pipe: Batman “isn’t a traditional superhero” because he has no powers. Spider-Man “isn’t a traditional superhero” because he’s a teenager. Blade “isn’t a traditional superhero” because he’s black. And a vampire. The X-Men “aren’t” because they’re societal outcasts, The Punisher “isn’t” because he uses guns, Hellboy “isn’t” because he’s a big red demon guy. Spawn “wasn’t” because, um… well, pretty much because Todd MacFarlane kept saying that he wasn’t, and at the time people were taking him seriously on such matters. But you get my point. The vey notion of being “not typical” has become the most typical thing of all. How, er… typical.
So let’s get this out of the way right now: John Constantine is (drumroll) not your typical superhero (wow, what a fresh idea!) because he’s, well, not a superhero. He’s a noirish occult detective, battling his way through an H.P. Lovecraft world with a Philip Marlowe additude in an ongoing DC/Vertigo comic series called “Hellblazer,” (I can’t imagine why they didn’t keep the name) but he popped up initially as an expository player in Alan Moore’s seminal 1980s run as the writer of “Swamp Thing.”
Lemme put this on the table: I’ve never managed to follow “Hellblazer” regularly. Strange, given my affection for all things Alan Moore and all things occult, but it just never made it to my pull list. So if you’re looking for a fan’s review of this as an adaptation, I’m afraid I’ll be of little help. Fortunately, Film Threat’s Pete Vonder Haar has gone ahead and written a “fan’s perspective” review of the film HERE:
And he even put up an alternate “just as a movie” review as well. Good show.
In terms of the film on it’s own from MY perspective, here we go: John Constantine (“J.C.,” get it?) can see halfbreed Angels and Demons (the full-fledged ones aren’t allowed on Earth, apparently, owing to a playful detente’ God and Satan are apparently having for kicks) walking around invisible to the rest of us mortals. These visions drove him to attempt suicide as a kid, and since suicide is the Big Unforgivable of all sins (the whole thing is DRIPPING in old-school Catholic Angst like that) his near-death experience has left him not only condemned to Hell, but with a firsthand glimpse of what it means for him. So now, as an adult, he trolls the occult underground “deporting” misbehaving demons as a kind of freelance exorcist in hopes of scoring a reprieve from the Almighty.
The introduction, it must be said, is a doozy; a cracking-good spin on the traditional “exorcism” scene we’ve seen in so many horror films. Instead of the expected old-priest/young-priest team confronting the posessed little girl with the demon-face strapped to the bed with dual utterings of “the power of Christ compels you!” we get chain-smoking, grubby suit-wearing John Constantine hopping onto the bed and leaning in to hiss “This is John Constantine, ___hole!” to the offending hellspawn. Not one for subtlety, when what appears to be demonic jaws lunge up from the poor kid’s neck, he simply slugs it.
As played by Keanu Reeves in full-on minimalist mode, Constantine lives out his crusade in Los Angeles. The comic book Constantine, I’m told, is a bloke doing his thing in England. This will no doubt annoy the hell out of you if you’re a “Hellblazer” fan and be of no consequence if you’re not, save for the fact that the knowledge makes it an inescapable truism that this would be soooo much cooler in a British setting. But L.A. is where we are and, in L.A., a lady detective (Rachel Weisz) is seeking Constantine’s help in proving that her devoutly-Catholic twin sister’s suicide was actually an act of murder. It all ties in to a big doomsday/antichrist hulabaloo involving Catholic Arcana fan-fiction staples like the Spear of Destiny (look it up) and the Angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton.)
It’s odd how old-hat some of this seems by now. So many films, especially in the horror genre, have mined this material by now that it’s starting to seem almost quaint. I’m sure this is all culled from one or more “Hellblazer” arcs, but the material has been mined so often by everything from “The Prophecy” to Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” that even items like the Gnostic Gospels that used to be the stuff of gasp-inducing gag-references for Seminary scholars is now the backbone of a sewing-circle potboiler like “The DaVinci Code.” Still, speaking as a 12-year veteran of Catholic School, it’s fun to see all the old trinkets trotted out as gadgetry in an action film. I don’t care if their born of the movie or the comic, but I love Constantine’s shotgun/crucifix firing gold bullets made from melted relics. Or the use of holy water as napalm. Or “the last rites” as a method of demon-torture. And my personal “omigodthatsocool!!!!” favorite, a pair of golden, crucifix-emblazoned Holy Brass Knuckles.
This is all very silly when you get down to it, but I have to say I dug the hell out of this. It just “works for me.” I love the offbeat no-sequitor level at which this is all pitched, like the scene where Constantine matter of factly snatches up a housecat before a “teleport me to hell” recon-mission with only the explanation being: “Thats good! Cats are good, half-in half-out already.” I even like Swinton’s Gabriel popping up wearing what must be the silliest concept for what an Angel might wear yet put to film. I dig the wild Heronymous Bosch-influenced hell, or Constantine’s weapons-supplier nonchalantly dropping off “bullet shavings from the asassination attempt on the Pope,” and Djimon Honsou’s not-nearly-as-racially-bothersome-as-it-sounds turn as a kind of Witch Doctor nightclub owner (who employs the most memorable door security I’ve seen in awhile.) And, dear me, how I do love Peter Stormare’s 3rd-act scene-stealer turn as as dandy, doting Lucifer.
Overall, “Constantine” is trying to set up a franchise, and it’s doing a DAMN good job of it. I want to see more of this guy, and his cool blasphemy-busting weaponry and his colorful friends. There’s a good series in here if they want it. So, overall, consider this a FIRM reccomendation.
Sidebar: Back in 1997, right before Marvel Films got it’s act going and started the then-to-present “comic book movie craze,” their first shot was “Blade,” an R-rated action/horror film based on one of their most obscure characters reimagined. It was a modest hit, heralding the arrival of “X-Men” and the triumph of “Spider-Man.” DC comics-based films have floundered for awhile, but now here they have a likely mini-hit in an R-rated obscure-character reworking… and waiting in the wings is non other than Batman and Superman films soon to come. Not saying history always repeats itself, just saying it’s… interesting.
Additional sidebar: Y’ever notice that in horror movies Christianity is ONLY ever represented by Catholicism, because Protestantism just isn’t “scary enough” I guess? Y’ever notice also that, for all the Religious Right knocking of movie violence, ultraviolent horror films like this an “Exorcist” are the most devout, literal religious films getting made these days?
In conclusion: To my usual battle cry of “to hell with ‘The Passion,'” I can now add this revision: “To hell with ‘The Passion,’ THIS is my kinda ultra-violent Catholicism movie!”
FINAL RATING: 8/10