Constantine: Why Keanu Reeves’ 2005 comic book movie is underestimated

John Constantine is taken to Angel City by a taxicab for his exorcism. As Constantine gets to work, fighting to free a girl from the demon inside her, he realizes this isn’t your average ritual — something’s wrong, off-balance. Something’s coming. And Constantine isn’t just the first to notice, he’s the only guy who can fix it.

John Constantine is at the centre of a conflict between Heaven and Hell. Despite these cosmic circumstances, he’s just a guy trying to figure it all out. Constantine has many struggles, including with his mortality and morality. He also experiences loneliness and losses. He is a likeable character, desperate, deluded and pushed into the dark corners. 2005’s ConstantineHardboiled horror and a noir supernatural thriller where Keanu Reynolds plays the role of Philip Marlowe (an occult figure haunted by both real-life and figurative ghosts).

Some fans believe that the Vertigo/DC Comics characters underwent an unimaginable transformation. The movie took them from London to Los Angeles and made him blonder. He also got a brunette look. His olive trench was replaced with a black one. Though it’s not the most literal HellblazerThe ability to adapt ConstantineIt is a unique film that has been misunderstood since its inception. Over the years, though, it’s steadily gained the love and appreciation it always deserved.

Constantine languished in development hell at Warner Bros in the late ’90s. The project was a success and Keanu Reeves, a music video director, signed up to be the star of the film. He would also make his feature-film debut. With Constantine, Lawrence and his collaborators constructed a rich, textured world, one whose inner workings are intimately familiar to our protagonist, though he doesn’t always feel like explaining them. (“Cats are good. Half in half out, anyway.”) Here, the supernatural is quotidian — performing an exorcism is “like changing your oil,” Reeves told the Associated Press at the time of release.

Constantine is an unwilling hero, con man and wiseass. In an interview with Sunday Express, Reeves called him a “warrior in this world of shit.” He is Heaven and Hell’s go-between, single-handedly keeping the universe from unraveling. Screenwriter Kevin Brodbin told Cinefantastique that he pitched John Constantine “like a rock ’n’ roll star of the occult,” a man who treats exorcisms like an extreme sport. “He does it for kicks, to bedevil the devil,” Brodbin explained. Constantine tried to murder himself in his youth because he could see half-demons, half-angels, and was driven insane by this ability. This mortal sin condemned him. After a brief death, Constantine was sent to Hell where he spent what seemed like an eternity. And now he doesn’t want to go back. While racking up exorcisms he hopes to meet some arbitrarily set quota which will please God. But true atonement isn’t his purpose as much as saving his own hide from damnation.

Constantine walks through an ashen, orange apocalyptic wasteland that might be hell

Warner Bros. Pictures

ConstantineThere are many shades of noir in the plays, including the doomed Fatalism of paranoid noir and the hardboiled noir that gumshoes such as Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, or Philip Marlowe. The detective story is a riff on the quest of the knight errant, and though Constantine would never admit it, he’s essentially a knight in tarnished armor. In his letters, Raymond Chandler wrote that the detective is “the avenging justice, the bringer of order out of chaos,” a perfect description of John Constantine, who brings order out of the ultimate chaos: the threat of the apocalypse.

After his long stint in Hell, Constantine’s cynicism and world-weariness are hard-earned. Like his private-eye predecessors, he’s a lone wolf. In an exchange cut from the film, Constantine and Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou) watch people on the street and Constantine remarks, “Never ceases to amaze me.” Midnite asks, “What?” and Constantine clarifies: “Normal life.” His secret knowledge only deepens his loneliness. He’s always on the outside looking in, wondering just how blissful ignorance would be.

Noir’s fatalism is baked into Constantine. In the film’s commentary, producer Akiva Goldsman explains the basics: “God and the devil, as a result of this wager for the souls of all mankind, have a hands-off policy when it comes to the earth. They send these half-demons and half-angels to influence us, to see which way the decks can be stacked and which way the game will go.” Humankind is at the mercy of God’s and the devil’s whims, pawns in their battle. Like Constantine’s friend and holy-relics supplier Beeman (Max Baker) says, “We are finger puppets to them.” Even advertisements seem to mock the natives and confirm their abandonment: a lottery promotion reads “Play to win” in the liquor store where Pruitt Taylor Vince’s Father Hennessy drinks himself to death, a Chevy billboard tells Constantine after his cancer diagnosis “Your Time is Running Out … To Buy a New Chevy,” another billboard behind the man carrying the Spear of Destiny asks “Got faith?” When Gavin Rossdale’s half-demon Balthazar kills Beeman and Hennessy with something each man loves (bugs and booze, respectively), their deaths feel like cosmic jokes.

Constantine loathes impossible rules, the innumerable regulations that trap him and humanity. The laws of God and the devil are like ours, as it turns out: they don’t actually determine what’s good or bad, just what you can get away with. This world, as well as the one behind it, is every bit as corrupt and corrupted as ours. We expect God to do better than we. Instead, he’s just as petty and fallible as his creation. Constantine, a Veteran and Casualty of a War between God and Satan has lost their plot.

Constantine talks to Gabriel in a library

Warner Bros. Pictures

Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Eddie Muller writes that, in the genre, “prayers go unheard in these parts,” an apt description of Constantine’s universe. Los Angeles makes the perfect location for his tale: anonymous and sprawling but as detached as Constantine. One could spend their entire life in Los Angeles and only be able to know part of the city. It is possible for a world to exist that exists behind the world. It’s not unthinkable that thousands of winged demons could have been incinerated only moments before you reached Broadway and 8th, or that you can find the 101 freeway in Hell.

Constantine walks through his city without any judgment of its residents. Constantine hates both the powerful and good. He is evil. He is a friend of witch doctors, priests, and other half-demons as well. Like Constantine, his friends can be vulnerable to the powers that-be. And he keeps losing them: the psychic priest Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), his “apprentice” Chas (Shia LaBeouf), and his own occult Q, Beeman (Max Baker).

Hennessy might just be his closest friend, one of the few characters who truly understands what it’s like to be Constantine. Each man is burdened by a gift that makes them feel more cursed. Hennessy has the ability to see the dead and to drown out the voices from his head using booze. When Constantine takes away Hennessy’s amulet of protection and asks him to listen to the ether for information, he unknowingly consigns him to a terrible death. The Latin phrase engraved on the side of Constantine’s lighter is “Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus,” meaning “Let justice be done, though the world perish,” and it’s the detective’s credo — to get justice at any cost. The price is paid by his friends. Screenwriter Frank Capello told Cinefantastique upon release that Constantine’s “only allegiance is to himself. Screw anyone else. He has friends he will sacrifice to complete a job.”

Papa Midnite is one of Constantine’s few friends who survives their friendship. He’s wise to Constantine’s cons, initially resisting his requests for help. It’s not even really evident that they are friends at first. But when Midnite finally allows Constantine to “surf” in the electric chair from Sing Sing to find the Spear of Destiny, their connection becomes clear. Constantine used to do the same thing Midnite did. Their shorthand is a history. Constantine remains on the frontlines while Midnite, who was a witch doctor and turned-club owner, is now out of the game. According to Francis Lawrence on the film’s commentary, Midnite’s club is like Rick’s cafe in Casablanca, a place where “both half-breed demons and half-breed angels could come and let their hair down or their tails out or what have you.” But when evil tips the balance, Midnite sets aside his oath of neutrality and helps his old pal. Midnite prays for them before Chas and Constantine leave the club in order to fight Mammon. Though Constantine acts dismissive, Midnite’s blessing calls up something Beeman told Constantine before he died: “I know you’ve never had much faith, you’ve never had much reason to, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have faith in you.”

Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) is the only newcomer to Constantine’s inner circle. They’re brought together by death: Constantine’s terminal diagnosis and the death of Angela’s twin sister Isabel by suicide. Just as Angela helps facilitate Constantine’s arc from selfish to selfless, Constantine is the catalyst for Angela’s evolution. Lawrence choreographed it so that their movement in the frame — Angela from right to left, Constantine from left to right — creates the sense they’re “always heading toward one another,” on a collision course, fated to meet. Regular kismet.

Angela can be complicated. Introduced to us in a confessional after having shot yet another man, she’s a Catholic who kills people for a living. She lives in guilt, just like Constantine. For her, it’s because she betrayed and abandoned her twin, denied their shared gift, and had her institutionalized. Angela kept her psychic gifts hidden for many years. It’s Constantine who guides her self-discovery. Frank Capello says, “John is John, but this girl doesn’t even know who she is, and he’s going to open her eyes.” And the trust goes both ways: with Angela, Constantine reluctantly allows another person into his life. Although they are only interested in romance, there is a sex scene where Constantine submerges Angela into the tub until Angela sees what it’s like to be in hell. It’s a ritual that requires complete trust, vulnerability, and faith.

constantine calms angela before her trip to hell

constantine lays angela under water in a bathtub

constantine holds angela under water in a bathtub

water blurs Constantine

Pictures by Warner Bros. Pictures

Angela isn’t really a damsel in distress or a femme fatale — she’s a detective herself, and Constantine’s equal. Instead of being the cause for his demise, Angela provides the tools to save him. If anything, Constantine is our homme fatale, leading others — and himself — to their doom. Constantine is sitting at the kitchen table just before Angela knocks on the door. He finishes his drink and then uses his glass to trap the spider. “Welcome to my life,” he says. It’s an image that not only expresses how Constantine feels, it distills noir and its fatalism. Meaningfully, it’s Angela who releases the spider before she leaves, anticipating the way she helps free Constantine from cancer and from damnation.

Everything comes to a head when Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel captures Angela, dropping her in the hydrotherapy pool where her sister died, an echo of her sister’s fall. Gabriel has now all of the necessary ingredients to bring down Armageddon. He is equipped with the Spear of Destiny and an enviable psychic. Old-fashioned private eyes can cut through the darkness with clues and legwork, but Constantine is able to do the same with the Spear of Destiny and a spell that exposes Gabriel as the architect for the coming apocalypse.

Gabriel delivers Constantine’s noir double-cross, though in her mind, she’s not the villain. She wants to unify humanity and increase the number of souls who can go to heaven. With her self-righteousness and absolutism, Francis Lawrence says her character is a commentary on the Christian right’s hypocrisy. In an interview with the New York Times, Tilda Swinton acknowledged that her take on the angel was a departure from the Bible, “but it is absolutely not a departure from real life as we are living it today, in the grip of people who are dressing themselves up as God’s right hand and taking us into war.” For Swinton, the challenge was to make sure that Gabriel remains well-intentioned, that the audience sees “how [Gabriel] engineers this extraordinarily violent apocalypse out of love.”

Despite Constantine’s plea for “a little attention,” God doesn’t answer him. He knows of someone who will. When Angela’s death, Mammon’s birth, and the end of everything seem imminent, Constantine slits his wrists, knowing he’s the one soul on earth that the devil would personally come to collect. Lucifer accepted the invitation and entered the frame, his feet covered in tar-black sludge. His white suit was pristine. Francis Lawrence described his take on Satan as “sort of like Fagin from Oliver Twist” and “so powerful he doesn’t have to get angry.” Peter Stormare takes it there; his Lucifer is unsettling, unruffled, and even funny. Stormare’s deeply creepy as he offers Constantine a “whole theme park of red delights.” With his performance, Stormare gives us one of the all-time great cinematic portrayals of the devil.

Akiva Goldsman calls this final showdown “a tug of war between the devil and God.” Unlike many modern adaptations of comic books, the climax isn’t a city-leveling spree of violence; instead, it’s a quiet conversation. It’s a battle of the wits. A negotiation for one man’s soul. And it ends with a “fuck you” to Lucifer, to fate, to death. The documentary Film Noir: Bring Darkness to Light, James Ellroy explained what the genre is to him: “It’s a righteous, generically American film movement that went from 1945 to 1958 and exposited one great theme and that theme is … you’re fucked.” Exactly what Gabriel once told Constantine. But in his moment of triumph, Constantine subverts this: it’s not the detective who’s fucked but the devil himself.

Satan lights a cigarette for Constantine

Warner Bros. Pictures

Constantine wins the game of devil without using any tricks. It isn’t another con. Although it solves most of his problems, God eventually opens Heaven to him. Lucifer then, annoyed, takes the black, steaming cancer out of Lucifer’s lungs in an attempt to stop him. It’s a sequence that shows off the abilities of Lawrence, Reeves, Stormare, and DP Philippe Rousselot to make a chat between two characters in a filthy room spellbinding. This sequence also contains one of the most memorable cinematic moments ever: Constantine smoking in his own blood.

But Constantine’s sacrifice is sincere, Christlike, an act of true selflessness to save Isabel’s soul, not his own. He doesn’t want to care, but he does. Constantine is more concerned about humankind than those in authority, even though he may seem cynical.

Constantine defies all odds in his dark-soaked universe. His purpose was to fulfill the most significant plan, which God gave him, not be abandoned. ConstantineThis film is about forgiveness and second chances. It’s about how bonds can be made between those who are broken, traumatized, or the disenfranchised. This film is in Constantine’s climactic sequence, both Angela and Constantine revisit and confront their trauma: Angela in the hydrotherapy room where her sister died, Constantine repeating his own suicide in a psychiatric ward. Constantine is about the ways grief and trauma and pain can knock you into another universe only understood by those who’ve shared the same feelings, the same experiences. It’s about how the truth of existence is a horror best weathered with friends. It’s about the lost and the powerless realizing that their lives do in fact have meaning, and our faith in each other is what delivers us.

Constantine is alive, and is no longer condemned or dying from cancer. He uses nicotine gum to replace cigarettes. Keanu Reeves reportedly wrote Constantine’s last line, one that sums up his journey tidily: “I guess there’s a plan for all of us. I had to die — twice — just to figure that out. The book says that He does His work in mysterious and unique ways. Some people like it, some people don’t.”

He’s still ambivalent, still Constantine, but maybe he’s cast aside a little bit of his nihilism, gained some peace, understood his own significance. In the end, he finds a place among the people he’s fought so long to protect. John Constantine saves both the world and his own life.

Constantine Currently streaming HBO Max

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