RETROSPECTIVE: Constantine (2005) was Good, Actually

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While examining movies of the pre-2008 MCU era 2005’s Constantine starring Keanu Reeves as the titular anti-hero stands out. Was Keanu’s foray into comics ahead of its time or simply the final chapter in a long series of comic book adaptation misfires? Constantine actually dropped in a weird year of ups and downs for comic book movies at the cinema. As opposed to the current cinematic landscape DC was poised for a very promising year with the pending release of both Batman Begins and V for Vendetta. It signaled a distinct direction for DC movies that would influence comic book films for the next several years.

Marvel, on the other hand, had quite a few movies come out alongside Constantine but most proved to be disappointing. That year saw Elektra, Fantastic Four, X-Men: The Last Stand, also known as X-3 which I covered in a different post, Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3. So many quality properties and so many disappointing films. In a way, this is the ideal landing spot for Constantine, a movie that still doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be or who it is for.

Constantine centers around occult detective John Constantine and his quest to scam his way into heaven after committing a mortal sin in his youth. On his quest, he is joined by a hodgepodge of charming sidekicks and supporting characters. Constantine finds out he has a terminal cancer diagnosis and struggles to reconcile his choices with the little time he has left. Time is running out too quickly for Constantine and he appears to have no options left when he crosses paths with Detective Angela Dodson whose devout Catholic sister appears to have committed suicide under very suspect circumstances.

Together, Angela and Constantine navigate the shadowy underworld just beneath the surface of our reality where heaven and hell play a long game of chess with the human souls on Earth. Constantine, at last, solves the mystery of Angela’s sister by sacrificing his life to expose the intricate plan behind her death. The Devil himself tries to claim Constantine’s soul but his last-second sacrifice pulls Constantine out of Lucifer’s clutches. Satan can’t let John have the last laugh though so he cures Constantine’s cancer and forces him to remain on the mortal plain just a little while longer.

When the movie debuted, the critics were not kind. Roger Ebert trashed the movie, giving it a 1.5 out of 4 stars and panned both the story and Reeve’s performance. Its Rotten Tomatoes sits at an ignominious 46% but does have a 72% audience approval rating. The budget for this supernatural blockbuster was 100 million dollars. The movie ended up grossing 230.9 million dollars between domestic and international release; making it a financial success. Despite its monetary success, a sequel never materialized. Famed director Guillermo Del Toro has mentioned wanting to work on a project featuring the supernatural detective but in relation to his comic book legacy in Justice League Dark. Additionally, Del Toro never mentioned if he was interested in including Reeves. 

Really, really, well actually. I don’t know what got Ebert so angry. Constantine is competent at worst. The demons’ CGI feels closer to PlayStation 2 Resident Evil’s bad guys than demons but other than that this movie is at times cynical, charming, exciting, and even dour.

However, I wanna get up on the mic because we don’t deserve Keanu Reeves. For years, Reeves has been toted as a “bad actor” which is very unfair. Reeves is a really excellent actor with a very narrow range of roles to play. When he gets his roles, he absolutely kills it. No one adds more laid-back confident charm combined with surfer vulnerability than Reeves does. Reeves needs the right role and this is definitely a quality post-Matrix performance. His portrayal of Constantine is exactly what this particular story needs. Reeves plays a man walking the knife’s edge of oblivion and he doesn’t particularly care which side he falls down because he knows he’ll end up in the same place.

So is it a good comic movie? The answer is yes….and no. Sorry to be vague but the answer to that question really lies with the watcher. I enjoyed this movie as a comics fan because I had never read Constantine before I saw this film in 2005. My Vertigo Comics phase did not include John Constantine, Hellblazer comics. However, I eventually got around to reading some Hellblazer and hated it. More than likely the comics are fine but I had imprinted on Reeves’ performance and nothing else could match up. I wanted a gruff California, occult, surfer boy detective over a London bloke. I can see how Hellblazer fans rejected this effort but I hope just a little bit they enjoyed the Keanu to some degree.

In a different way, this is a very good comic book movie. This movie pulls a sweet “Batman ’89” where it acts as a sequel without an origin film. This movie depends on the audience to pick up important details and understandings. While there is a mini origin story, it’s only told by Constantine in a short 5-minute flashback while enjoying street food (bless you, California Constantine).

Why don’t more superhero movies do this? You could just make a Rogue movie where Rogue has an adventure without explaining her entire origin. If the adventures are fun people will respond, I’d love a Nightwing movie that just starts with Nightwing as opposed to explaining his origin in correlation to Batman.

In fact, before the WB Arrowverse emerged there were urban myths and semi-confirmed rumors that a Green Arrow script was floating around that was about as far from an origin story as you can get. In this script, Ollie goes undercover in a supermax prison full of dampened powered supervillains. Ollie needs to solve a mystery before the villains stage a massive jailbreak. The movie never happened and instead Hollywood gave us origin after origin. Spider-Man: Homecoming cracked the origin curse slightly but how many more first adventures will we have to suffer through?

P.S. DC please make a Tim Drake standalone movie, it would be great

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