Constantine: Deluxe Edition Review

John Constantine is an asshole.

He may possess the hallmarks of a Hollywood hero - the swaggering demeanour, billowing trench coat, and good looks - but he’d rather sit at home smoking, than save the world from apocalyptic forces. If it wasn’t for his unfortunate situation (he’s on his way down to Hell), life as we know it would have ended long ago. He doesn’t do good deeds because he feels like it. He saves our souls merely to save his own. He seeks redemption for a life poorly spent; a life endangered by his need to smoke 30 cancer sticks a day. No wonder he’s a little grouchy…

Keanu Reeves has never been grouchy, to my knowledge. At least not on the silver screen. His “surfer dude” persona seems to be slipping away, slowly but surely, and the Neo complex has taken over. Throughout Constantine, Reeves can be seen bounding around the screen, vanquishing supernatural forces in varying degrees of stylised slow-motion. Only this time, he’s fighting demonic forces, and not futuristic machines. Still, while “The One” was a clean-cut saviour formed from white trash, Constantine is coloured in a constant shade of grey. He may be doing God’s work, but there’s more than a hint of the Devil in JC’s methods (but don’t let those initials fool you).

His first appearance makes this pretty clear, as he attempts to exorcise a demon from the body of a young girl. “This is Constantine”, he whispers into her ear. “John Constantine, asshole!” After enraging the demon though conventional means - a little chanting, a little symbolism - he captures the fiend in a mirror (demons apparently, are incredibly vain), which he throws out of the window…landing on the bonnet of his friend’s cab. The glass smashes, and the demon is lost to the ether; denting the perfectly good automobile in the process. He saved the host’s life, but instead of checking to see if she’s ok, he reaches for his treasured cigarettes and rushes off to wallow in his own self-pity. Cheery fellow.

Perhaps this is why critics were so harsh on Constantine, earlier this year. Unlike the recent Fantastic Four, this comic book adaptation is relentlessly downbeat - it’s full of dark themes, has plenty of pretentious dialogue, and gives Reeves one of his more subdued roles to date. Yet, it still manages to function as trashy blockbuster entertainment, with enough action and CGI to keep popcorn-munchers happy. That said, fans of the Hellblazer comics (published by DC and Vertigo) weren’t too happy with Warner’s treatment of the source material. After Alan Moore introduced him in the hallowed pages of Swamp Thing, John Constantine was given his own title by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis. Screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello have ignored most of his origin story - Moore’s Constantine was from Liverpool, looked like Sting, and spoke with an accent. So, in other words, he was nothing like Reeves. Brodbin even moved the action to Los Angeles, when the studios wouldn’t take an England-set action film seriously.

However, I’m not familiar with Hellblazer at all, despite my knowledge of comic literature. Therefore, I went in fresh, taking it at face value, and was thoroughly entertained. Constantine is no classic, but what it gets right is very good indeed. The debut feature from music video veteran Francis Lawrence, it’s a stylish if transparent concoction, that helps to pass two hours. Unfortunately, the plot is a hodgepodge of horror and fantasy archetypes, that doesn’t really make sense, but provides plenty of room for pyrotechnics. It has something to do with the Devil’s son, who is plotting to cross-over into our realm. Naturally, it’s up to JC to stop him. Aided by police officer Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), who can also see “the damned”, he attempts to prevent the on-coming apocalypse. But who can he trust? Will they succeed? And more importantly, will Constantine find redemption?

It’s not a good idea to think about the plot during Constantine. Many of the elements do not blend together seamlessly, with some half-baked ideas that receive no resolution at all. Yet, credit should be given to the writers for some moments of originality - particularly their image of Hell. It looks like LA after a nuclear attack; a barren wasteland of swirling debris and forbidding skies. The films biggest plus is definitely Lawrence. Despite his MTV background, the director shows a great deal of restraint. Constantine moves at a leisurely pace, allowing Lawrence to depict a lovingly detailed world. The picture has a bold and beautiful style, that fuses old-style noir techniques with atypical horror imagery. There’s always something to engage the eye, almost making up for the films crater-sized flaws. I said almost.

The various action scenes help to elevate Constantine above the norm. There’s a battle with a man made entirely from bugs (which is as CGI-heavy as you’d expect), a run-in with the other-worldly Balthazar (Bush front man Gavin Rossdale), and a skirmish with a room full of possessed baddies. The latter plays like a mix of The Matrix and Blade, as Reeves wields the “Holy Shotgun”; a weapon that also acts as a makeshift crucifix. Lawrence shoots the affair with the wiz-bang style and verve that you’d expect, with Constantine’s enemies erupting into dust, to Brian Tyler’s atmospheric score. But my favourite scene was spoilt by the trailer. It’s simple, yet hugely effective - the moment in which Angela is controlled by an unseen force. Her body is sent hurtling through walls, through offices, and out the skyscraper window…disappearing into the night sky. It’s “money” moments like this, that give Constantine some much-needed energy.

But other areas of the production stop it from becoming something more. Like the script, the cast seem to be on auto-pilot. In most respects, this is one of Reeves’ better turns. It’s a cynical and sarcastic Reeves, and he seems to be enjoying himself as Constantine, yet the Neo similarities are obvious (especially during the effects-heavy denouement). His dialogue delivery is occasionally stiff, but Reeves is good in the role. Yet he plays second fiddle to Weisz in many of the scenes they share. They worked together previously in the box office flop Chain Reaction, and she continues to act him off the screen. Weisz overcomes the uneven script, offering the best performance in the film; generating sympathy for her tortured character. Also good, is Tilda Swinton, as an androgynously mysterious Gabriel.

The rest of the supporting cast fail to leave an impression, with the exception of Peter Stormare, in a classy cameo. Shia LaBeouf is underused as Constantine’s willing assistant Chas, who serves no real purpose in the plot. Providing some light comedic relief, LaBeouf is at least a contrast to Reeves’ stoic persona. Same goes for the versatile Djimon Hounsou, as the mystical Midnite, whose bar is a haven for “half-breeds” and demonic clientele (to get in, you have to possess psychic abilities - one of the films cooler ideas). But Stormare has the most fun, chewing the scenery as the Devil. Dressed in white, with no prosthetics or horns, the actor is still an ominous presence; delivering his lines with pantomimic glee. But everyone in the film has been better in other projects. It seems that once Lawrence gets a handle on directing his actors as well as the crew, he might become a very talented filmmaker…

Ultimately, Constantine is a technically impressive and lavishly mounted production, that buckles under the sheer pressure of its ambitions. There are some deep, heady notions under the surface here, that are spoilt by a rambling, incoherent script that doesn’t know which direction to take. Its religious subtext is also lost in the din, thanks to the computer-generated hoo-hah and loud action. Yet, Constantine is pretty far from a failure. Despite these faults it manages to entertain, and there’s some genuine thrills to be had. Hellblazer readers will hate it with a fiery passion, but those new to the world of exorcist/anti-hero John Constantine will certainly find something to enjoy…

The Discs

The comic book bubble hasn’t burst yet, and despite Hellblazer’s cult status, Constantine still managed to earn a pretty penny for Warner. Therefore, the distributor have given the film a “Deluxe Edition”; a two-disc set which goes into fair detail on the production.

After admiring the box art (a flashy slip-cover, holding an amarray case), my attention was drawn to the free comic book contained within. A reprint of “Dangerous Habits” - an important title in the Hellblazer series - it’s a nice addition to a comprehensive set; allowing viewers to note the differences between Moore’s Constantine, and the movie Constantine. Suffice to say, my eyes were opened.

But what do the DVDs offer?

The Look and Sound

Hollywood blockbusters usually pack a punch on DVD, and Constantine is no exception. The anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) transfer is pretty close to perfect, and certainly does justice to Lawrence’s vivid styling. The gloomy colour palette adopted by the photography is carefully rendered here, and the blacks have real depth. Particular attention should be paid to those “Hell as LA” scenes - the detail is top-notch, with plenty of texture to the image. The picture even manages to show up the inconsistencies in CGI. It’s that sharp. Overall, I was impressed.

Audio meanwhile, is a little disappointing. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is reference-quality, but it didn’t have the panache one would expect from blockbuster material. For much of the film, the track is front-heavy, with only the odd moment of surround action, employed during the set pieces. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and sound effects are nicely played (especially those opening titles, or Gabriel spreading her wings). DTS would have been beneficial here, but those who aren’t picky should appreciate Warner’s efforts. It’s great, if not excellent.

Warner also provide a French 5.1 track, with English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Bonus Material

Like the film, the extras for Constantine won’t win any awards, but they provide a decent analysis of the production, with the usual quota of “how did they do that?” answers revealed.

Disc One

The extras begin with an audio commentary by director Francis Lawrence, producer and famous Hollywood hack Akiva Goldsman, and screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello. Despite the fair number of contributors (the writers were recorded separately), this track has little entertainment value for the casual viewer. For geeks like myself, it has some worth, yet it isn’t the most enlightening commentary I’ve heard recently. Lawrence tries hard to get his points across, with some fun reflections on his first feature gig, yet Goldsman keeps cutting in with silly jokes, and overly-critical comments. The writer of Joel Schumacher’s Batman disasters, Goldsman is a useless presence. One wishes that Lawrence was recorded separately too - he might have had the floor to comment thoughtfully about his film. Thankfully, Brodbin and Cappello make the track worthwhile, with their spirited observations. Brodbin had been with the script for years, and his comments on getting the film to the screen are intriguing (despite being a fan of the comic, he was forced to change Constantine’s origins just to get studios to read the script). Along with Cappello, the pair discuss the story at great length, and even have the guts to criticise their own work. A fair, if rather droll commentary.

Disc 1 rounds-up with Perfect Circle’s “Passive” video, and the films theatrical trailers. The disc loads with previews for Alexander and Richard Linklater’s astonishing A Scanner Darkly (also starring Reeves).

Disc Two

The second platter is largely featurette material, which runs the gamut from EPK fluff to genuine technical insight. They begin with the 16-minute “Conjuring Constantine”, which takes a brief look at DC and Vertigo comics, which should make aficionados pretty happy. The “Production from Hell” piece is fairly amusing, since it concerns Lawrence’s fears in making the film, as well as shooting some of the key scenes, and drawing the cast together. “Imagining the Underworld” is a CGI piece, highlighting the hellish LA shots, the Vermin Man sequence, and Angela’s abduction from the city sky rise. These vignettes are talking head heavy, but some nice facts are gleaned.

Making up most of the second disc, are the 14 deleted scenes (totalling around 18 minutes). The footage was cut for obvious reasons, but they’re worth mentioning since Lawrence excised an entire character from the movie. She’s named Ellie, and was seen briefly during Constantine’s attack on the half-breeds. These scenes are very interesting indeed, especially the sexual tension between her and Constantine. For once, the deleted scenes have some value. Last but not least, is a Pre-viz piece, with optional commentary by Lawrence.

The Bottom Line

A flawed, but enjoyable excursion into fantastical horror, Constantine is piss-poor as a comic book adaptation, but acceptable as an action blockbuster. For undemanding viewers, it might be just the ticket. Warner's "Deluxe Edition" is a great purchase for fans, with a glowing presentation, and pleasing extras.

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