John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a damned man and he knows it. Cursed with the ability to see the agents of heaven and hell who walk our world trying to influence mortals to good or evil ends, he tried to commit suicide to escape the horror of what he saw. Although doctors ultimately revived him, the two minutes he spent clinically dead at his own hand were enough to send his soul briefly to hell. Twenty years later, Constantine has become a known in the supernatural circles as fierce, chain-smoking exorcist, figuring if he can save enough mortals perhaps Heaven will relent his punishment and accept him in. To complicate matters, he has just learned he is dying of lung cancer and has only a few months to live. As he tells one character in the film while explaining his predicament, “How would you feel if you were sentenced to a prison full of inmates whom you had sent there?”
Such is the basic set up of Constantine, the new supernatural horror/action film based on the horror comic book series Hellblazer from DC/Vertigo comics. Don’t be fooled by this films source material though. The Hellblazer series is far removed from any kiddie-lit stigma that may still accompany comics. It has its origins in the mid-80s comics’ renaissance when writers began bringing more mature themes and elements to their stories in an effort to appeal to older readers. And the film adaptation doesn’t back away from the material.
After the apparent suicide of her twin sister Isabel, policewoman Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) asks Constantine to prove that her sister didn’t take her own life. The investigation introduces Rachel to familiar territory for Constantine, the underground culture of warring factions between Heaven and Hell. But Constantine realizes that Hell isn’t playing by the rules set up between Lucifer and God and soon the two are racing to stop the unleashing of a literal hell on Earth.
Constantine marks the second comics to film adaptation, after The Punisher, to have appropriated some plot elements created by British comic book scribe Garth Ennis. Although altered to fit in with the main plot, Constantine still makes better use of Ennis’ cancer/John avoiding going to Hell subplot than The Punisher did with the elements it used for its story. However here, the arc of Constantine discovering that he can’t buy his way into Heaven but will have to earn his redemption is a nice addition to the source material.
Reeves handles the role of John Constantine well, distinguishing it from his other trench-coated persona from the Matrix films. While some comics fans may fuss about the changes made to the source material for the film, Reeves’ complexion is far darker than the original comics’ character design based on blond British rocker Sting, the character works well in the movie. Constantine is a bit more rough-and-tumble in his cinematic incarnation, willing to go toe-to-toe with a demon armed only with a pair of brass knuckles engraved with crosses. Because of his brief visit to hell, he is also in a unique position. Since he has firsthand knowledge of the existence of Heaven and Hell, he will never have the unknowing faith we are told is required for salvation.
Refreshingly, Constantine avoids much of the faux-gothic and leather fetishistic trappings that have accompanied other recent supernatural-themed films like Underworld and the Blade trilogy. Instead, the film uses designs that recall more traditional Judeo-Christian imagery for the first angelic and demonic characters, while it’s vision of Hell is Los Angeles filtered through brimstone and Hieronymus Bosch. (A caveat to devout Christians who are sensitive to how elements of their religion are portrayed in films. Constantine plays fast and loose with a lot of religious elements so proceed with caution.)