Hellbla— I Mean Constantine

Alisa and I saw Constantine last night. This was a particularly tricky movie for me, since I’ve been reading the comic John Constantine: Hellblazer since high school. The first trailer I saw for this flick made it look like revisionist Hollywood dreck. I was very disappointed. First off, Constantine is British and blonde. While these aren’t important per se, when Hollywood votes against a blonde lead, I start to get worried (I smell creative compromise). Also, the action and plot seemed pretty flat. However, the second trailer was much cooler and much more promising (see both here). So, in spite of myself and because of my appreciation for the series, I got excited.

Keanu Reeves as John Constantine in a reflective moment

Constantine, fortunately, plays it loose with the details, but makes great strides to not betray the spirit of the comic (with the exception of a moment or two) and draws heavily from some of the stronger story arcs in the series (written by Garth Ennis). On top of this, the production was very, very well done and the acting is great.

The story has many familiar themes, tones, and characters for readers of the comics, but makes no bones about adapting them to the medium and the plot. Keanu Reeves is, of course, the barometer by which much of the movie will be judged, and I think that he manages the character well, if not spectacularly. Watching Reeves required me to let go of my mental image and just roll with this new vision of Constantine. If you can do that, it’ll work. If not, you’ll spend all your time fuming over the differences, which really isn’t worth it. This is a good film.

The plot is just labrynthian enough to not provide any obvious paths. It’s not terribly difficult to anticipate the general direction, but the story has enough threads woven into it to provide interest, intrigue, and tension in healthy doses. This is largely attributable to Ennis’s original writing for the series. Kevin Broadbin‘s adaptation is skillfull, but its bones are in the comics. And, one of the most important elements, the magic, has that wonderful, bizarre, twisted logic of old magic, but with the spare, no-frills, no pomp-and-circumstance feel of the comic’s take on Constantine’s magic.

The direction and cinematography are excellent. They don’t break any new ground, but use newer visual techniques with a lot of skill and style so as to feel contemporary, but not overly derivative. There are definitely a few moments (a conversation between Constantine and Angela Dodson where she’s behind a green window, a bus that’s cut in before a transition) where Francis Lawrence takes some chances that don’t click, but it’s that chance-taking that gives the film its freshness and pays off so well throughout the movie. Plus, it’s his first feature-length film. Impressive stuff. I’m sure no small part of this was played by Naomi Shohan, the production designer, who’s got films like American Beauty under her belt.

One visual element that really struck Alisa and I is the costume design, done by Louise Frogley. She’s clearly got a lot of work under her belt, but of the films of her’s I’ve seen, this one shines the brightest. I suppose the fantasy setting allowed a bit more play, but regardless, she hits the balance of decay and horror, modern and hip, and antiquated and classic dead on. In particular, her designs for the angel Gabriel are fascinating and beautiful.

Constantine delivers on all fronts, even if it strays from the comic in some uncomfortable ways. This is a film I’d watch again, and will probably buy. Oh, and if you like the film, you should really read the comic, particularly the story arc ‘Dangerous Habits’.

Ad Exec Review: Hell wants him. Heaven won’t take him. Earth needs him. MPAA Review: Violence and Demonic Images.

P.S: Found out today that Alisa believes I will die before my 86th birthday. Isn’t that sweet?

5 Responses to “Hellbla— I Mean Constantine

  1. sabih says:

    hey, this is funny i came across a review of this movie on a designer’s site – but did you notice how the tracking between the characters in the main title for the film was all screwy?

  2. chris r says:

    Actually, yes. I whispered it to my wife, directly following her commenting on how cool she thought it was, and she hit me.

    I’m not sure why they went with such a geometric sans, either (if I remember correctly, it was something akin to Futura). By the way, I went to school with Mickey Mayo at CMU.

  3. sabih says:

    yes sir – mickey was actually the one who told me he knew of you when i showed him that typographi.ca article on best typefaces of 2004!

    then i came here and saw the constantine review and just had to comment about the title…i was very confused by it. glad someone else noticed!

  4. abw says:

    Did you stay after the credits to see the bonus footage? my bro and I accidently walked into the theater as the credits were ending from the previous showing so that is how we knew about it. It was interesting

  5. chris r says:

    Yes, I did. Alisa was skeptical, but it paid off.

    I found it a bit soft and nice for Constantine, but the movie was generally softer than the comic, so it fits.