One of the slew of new comic book-based tv shows this fall is Constantine, based on the exorcist and dabbler in the dark arts, John Constantine (did the name give it away?). We are a few episodes in, and so far, it's looking good. Dark, entertaining and chock full of references to the comic books, it looks like it will be another success for the DC TV-verse.
However, this is not the first time that John Constantine has been brought to our screens. Back in 2005, Keanu Reeves starred as the demon-hunter in the Francis Lawrence film version. Inspired by the character's return to the screen, I thought I'd dust it off for a re-watching, and see how it compares to the show so far.
Obviously, a major issue for fans of the comics was the casting. Whatever you think of Keanu Reeves, be it joke or genius, he's just not right for the part. John Constantine is blonde, for one thing - was Reeves unwilling to dye his trademark dark locks for the sake of authenticity? He is also from Liverpool, and while I'd rather no accent than a butchered attempt at one, surely they could have found someone to bring some Mersey flavor to the role? Someone like, say, Matt Ryan. Who, for the tv show, cut and dyed his hair to match the character, and has so far managed to sound like a Liverpudlian, despite being Welsh.
Chas Kramer/Chandler is another character bearing little resemblance to his inspiration. Far from the muscular equal and friend, Shia LeBoeuf portrays a version who is smaller, younger, and very much a sidekick. He's not even a particularly good sidekick; in parts of the film, you get the feeling that John simply puts up with the guy.
Of course, not everyone fails quite as hard as these two. Tilda Swinton, as always, is glorious. Her Gabriel is absolutely perfect, and she feels born for the role of an angel; beautiful, delicate, androgenous, and also utterly terrifying. Swinton really makes this movie for me, and if the rest of the major players had been cast so well, I think it would have been an incredible film. Djimon Hounsou as Papa Midnite is another character well-cast and excellently written, as is Peter Stormare as Satan.
Where Else Did They Go Wrong?
Other than the casting, there are really only two other issues that I have with this movie, and they are pretty small ones.
First, there are times that the plot relies heavily on coincidence and Deus Ex Machina. Not only do both Constantine and Angela go to the same church, but happen to be there at exactly the same time. One of a few small but frustrating moments for me where it felt more than a little unrealistic, and unnecessary on top of that. Perhaps it's meant to be this way - in a story about angels and demons, a little overt "god in the machine" could be all kinds of meta...but I doubt it.
The other frustrating element for me is that there are so many amazing things that deserve more attention and explanation than they get. Papa Midnite's chair, for example - I want to know far more about what, exactly this is. I want to know more about Papa Midnite's voodoo roots (rather than just been a spooky dude with a demon-club), and I want to know much more about that demon-club itself. I want to know exactly what is happening with Constantine's tattoos, other than their apparent power when brought together. Black bibles, dragon's breath, all these things are so. freaking. cool. but are rushed past in order to get to more action scenes. It's a shame.
Obviously, this is an area where the show beats the movie hands down, and it's purely because of format. (It's also a reason that I love seeing so many new comic book based tv shows) In a show where each episode is 45 minutes, and you could theoretically have as many episodes as you wanted (ratings permitting), it's possible to go into all kinds of detail, on every single item in the show. We could see the whole story of the provenance and useage of every tattoo, every weapon, and every book. As someone who is all about history in the details, I can't wait to see what they come up with.
And What Did They Do Right?
I may have started with some of the negatives, but there is still plenty to enjoy about this film!
First and foremost, it's entertaining (which is the point, isn't it?). It moves quickly, it's full of action, and while I personally may wish to see some things slow down for extra explanation, the truly important things get do just the right amount. Laboring the point would be worse than leaving me wanting more, after all.
The effects are also pretty impressive, and enjoyable to watch. Sure, some of the more heavily CGI'd moments are starting to show their age, but the majority of it still looks great. From the first exorcism to the final moments (spoiler alert! Although c'mon, it's nearly ten years old) where the floor buckles as Lucifer tries to drag Constantine to hell, the effects are convincing.
It's a nice balance between action and horror, which really amps up the tension. If you are a bit of a horror fan, you'll appreciate the moments that stray into the territory of terror, and if you aren't, it's not so scary that you will feel the need to hide behind a sofa cushion. It has the elements of religion, of legend, of horror and of action, and it blends together wonderfully.
The show also manages these elements well, with better FX (after almost a decade, you would hope so), and a combination of drama, action and horror.
Which Should I Watch?
If you have an evening free where you want to curl up on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn and just watch a fun action-ish movie, there's no contest. It's enjoyable, it's balanced, and as long as you are able to put the source material aside for a couple of hours, it's great watching.
If, however, you are a big fan of the comic books and really want to see something that brings them to life, I'd stick with the show. It's (so far) a much, much closer interpretation of the original characters, and the format is going to allow for similar kinds of story arcs and development. They are also going to be bringing in most of the Justice League Dark, if the rumors can be believed, and are definitely using more of the characters from the books.
I would still recommend both the movie and the show, but I think that the show wins my personal vote as a comic fan. Which do you prefer? Comment and let me know what you think!