In Defense of Keanu Reeves’ ‘Constantine’

It’s 2005. Sitting on the bench part of a long lunch table, I lean over the communal plate of french fries and grin at my surrounding friends. “So,” I start. “Who wants to go see Constantine?!” Groans and eye rolls make my friends’ answer clear.

In line at the local movie theater, I clear my voice and ask as sweetly as possible, “Mama, can we see Constantine?” Without turning to look at me, my mom asks in return, “What’s the rating?” I pause. “Um…R,” I eventually respond. “No. We’re going to see The Wedding Date,” she says definitively. “Nooooooooooo!” I shout (in my head).

Who knows why I really wanted to see Constantine. I didn’t read Hellblazer. I wasn’t into supernatural horror or horror-esque R-rated movies. Maybe it was the mythology-heavy narrative of an epic battle between heaven and hell. Maybe it was the slick, LA noir look of the movie. Maybe it was Keanu Reeves. (It was definitely Keanu Reeves.)

And yet, upon (FINALLY) seeing the February-released film, I felt gratified. Despite its ho-hum release date and mixed reviews (it’s privileged with a spot on Roger Ebert’s Most Hated movies as of 2005), Constantine is a solid, supernatural thriller.

As a direct adaption of the comic series Hellblazer from which it’s based, it fails. But the mythology, plot, and characterization in the Francis Lawrence-directed movie is so different than that from the comics, that it becomes difficult to even compare the two iterations. To me, the movie is an alternate reality Hellblazer, in which John is a dark-haired American based in LA rather than a blonde Brit based in London in the same vein as DC Comics’ Earth One re-imaging series.

Lawrence went on to direct episodes of the short-lived Kings, I Am Legend, and the remaining Hunger Games films. Jam packed with character actors sinking their teeth in fun albeit small roles (Djimon Hounsou, Peter Stormare, Gavin Rossdale, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and pre-Transformers, post-Holes Shia LaBoeuf), the noir-inspired dark fantasy film feels like a Sci-Fi Channel rerun of The Queen of the Damned with a better script and a bigger budget.

I hold fast that Reeves has never been better than he is as John Constantine. Trading surfer dude wonderment for exasperated bad assery, Reeves perfectly captures the boredom, desperation, and dry humor of Constantine. Behind his dead pan delivery is an anger and fiery spirit that Reeves imbues into the role. Rocking an American accent that sounds more natural than her native British one, Rachel Weisz pulls double duty as the film’s second and third leads as twins Angela, an LAPD detective, and Isabel, a religious mental patient. What I love about the movie, especially in retrospect, is how much of a dual storyline the film is. Yes, John is the protagonist, but so is Angela. She reconnects with a deeply buried part of herself, uncovering her untapped potential and her vulnerability to unseemly supernatural entities.

Perhaps even more important than any other feature of the film, Constantine offers my first introduction to the wondrous talents of Tilda Swinton. As the androgynous half-breed angel Gabriel, Swinton dazzles as a deliciously self-righteous and smug ambassador for the Man Upstairs. Plus, Swinton as Gabriel is responsible for my adolescent over-use of the nonchalant F-bomb.

With a rich backstory and plethora of demons, angels, and every creature in between to showcase, Hellblazer should feel more at home with a TV adaptation. Maybe. Hopefully. A positive sign seems to be the upcoming Constantine showrunners change-up in removing Rachel Weisz lookalike Lucy Griffiths’ arc from the main arc of season one. Not even a Constantine movie fan wants to see an adaptation of a storyline from a re-imagining adaptation of the original work. But just because the new series promises to be more faithful to the source material (sort of), doesn’t mean the film version shouldn’t be defended and celebrated for the mid-2000s genre gem it is.

Now, you know what movie is really indefensible? The Wedding Date.

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