At a time when Hollywood seems to be remaking every film you ever heard of and plenty you didn’t, it can be curious to see what hasn’t yet been lined up for a reboot. One obvious omission is Constantine, which seems ripe for a remake (or, if you’re on the side of those who saw the 2005 Keanu Reeves movie as an unholy mess that desecrated the original character, a ‘first’ make). But, despite occasional rumours, this doesn’t yet seem to have been marked out for a 21st century makeover. But is the original really that bad? Because I like you, and I’m happy to suffer for my art, I re-watched it to find out…
The main thing about Constantine is that most people can remember very little about it beyond the fact that it’s not very good, and Keanu Reeves is in it, though fans of the books may well still recall their fury that the blonde, London-based John Constantine (whose look was based, apparently, on Sting) was transformed into an American pretty boy. Going back, you realise that it actually boasts quite an impressive cast list: I remembered Tilda Swinton being in it, partly because I adore her, and partly because she was the best thing in the movie by a mile, but had completely forgotten that Rachel Weisz was the female lead, or that it featured Shia LaBeouf in the days when he was playing plucky sidekicks to leading male stars rather than to Megan Fox’s breasts.
It also wasn’t quite (whisper it) as bad as I remembered it. Possibly because I have a soft spot for the whole angels v demons thing so I always like these kinds of films – though this means my bar is set pretty low, as evidenced by the fact I enjoyed both End of Days, and Stigmata, and not just because of Gabriel Byrne’s presence in both (OK, mainly because of that, but still…) Constantine is actually a fairly decent addition to that tradition.
Based (loosely) on the Hellblazer comics, the film is set in a world where both demons and angels are banned from the earth, with only ‘half breeds’ allowed to influence mortal men. Unsurprisingly, given that if popular fiction has taught us anything, it’s that demons can’t be trusted and angels are equally shifty but tend to smug and annoying with it, this detente doesn’t last and Keanu Reeves’ Constantine is caught up in the battle. There are some interesting moral issues amongst the (actually quite well-done) special effects: the film takes a very Catholic view of suicides (they go to hell) so ex-suicide attempter Constantine, brought back from death on the doctor’s table, is a man who is trying to buy his way back into heaven by fighting the forces of evil, while Weisz is the sister of a woman driven to take her own life by her ability to see ‘the other side.’
Of course, the fact that it is Keanu playing the role means these heavy ethical questions are skated over – because let’s face it, while he looks so beautiful that I ended up thinking it would be worth a little demon possession to have him clamber all over me spouting Latin, he’s no great actor on his best day, and this really wasn’t his best day. Lines that from a better actor could be played with cocky charm or weary bitterness fall out of Keanu’s mouth like stones: he goes through the whole film like he’s reading a script in a language he doesn’t understand, and the only time he looks even halfway comfortable is in the Matrix-style finale shoot out. I’m convinced the only reason they hired Bush-frontman Gavin Rossdale to play a demon is that, compared to the rock star’s execrable performance, Keanu looks like a proper actor. (The biggest laugh of the film comes from Constantine answering a question with the line, “I’m thinking” – because, honey, we know that ain’t true).
But despite Keanu’s striding through the film like a very pretty plank, I’d argue the movie still works as solid entertainment. There are some fantastic set pieces and great touches – the alcoholic priest trying to slake his thirst from bottles that never pour is one of my own nightmares writ large, the holy water in the sprinkler system might have been done a dozen times since, but here felt fairly fresh. Rossdale aside, the rest of the cast are quality character actors: Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel is a masterpiece of androgyny and ambiguity, an angel in combats who simply doesn’t understand the world of men, while Djimon Hounson’s turn as club owner Midnite manages to breathe sinister life in a fairly clichéd role, and that’s before we even get to Peter Stormare as a laconic Lucifer with some serious family problems. Weisz and Reeves may not exactly set the world on fire with their chemistry, but they’re both pleasant enough to look at, and anyway, Constantine was never about the romance.
So, yes, it’s triumph of style over substance – but so what? Occasionally that’s all you want from a movie. Like Keanu itself, the film is visually stunning but doesn’t have much to say – but just think, it could have been worse. Imagine if they had cast renowned thespian Sting in the role…
What do you think? Are we ready for a remake, or should we just enjoy the original for the slice of mind-free fun it was? Let me know in the comments.
Check out my own take on angels and demons at darkdates.org