'Constantine' at 15: Is Keanu Reeves' comic book noir a misunderstood classic?
In February 2005, comic books were a risk on the big screen. Two X-Men movies had been released to solid success and a pair of Spider-Man films had achieved the same feat, but Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was still a few months away from reviving Gotham and Iron Man was trapped in a limbo of umpteen script drafts over at New Line Cinema. Into this world stepped 1990s icon Keanu Reeves, fresh from the Matrix trilogy, to star in Constantine.
The film is a hard-edged comic book noir thriller, adapted from DC Comics series Hellblazer. The series ran from 1988 until 2013 and was then relaunched in November 2019. It reflects a more hard-edged, gothic brand of comic book story, led by the cynical, chain-smoking John Constantine.
Read more: First photos of Reeves on set of Matrix 4
The notion of a movie outing for Constantine was floated as early as 1997, with Nicolas Cage at one point attached to portray the occult detective in a film directed by Tarsem Singh — then best known for music videos. Keanu Reeves soon replaced Cage for a story loosely inspired by the hugely popular Dangerous Habits comics arc.
Much as Tom Cruise was an odd choice for fans of the Jack Reacher books, Reeves didn’t seem the ideal fit for Constantine. The character in the comics is blonde and British, inspired by music legend Sting. In the movie, though, the story is transplanted to Los Angeles and Reeves maintains his own hair colour and accent, portraying Constantine as a jaded, world-weary American rather than a jaded, world-weary Brit.
The film — the directorial debut of future Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence — also stars Rachel Weisz as a psychic cop, Shia LaBeouf as Constantine’s apprentice, Tilda Swinton as the Archangel Gabriel, Djimon Hounsou as witch doctor Papa Midnite and Peter Stormare as Lucifer.
It’s a strange movie, following a tangled plot to allow the son of Satan to take over Earth. Weisz’s detective becomes involved after the apparent suicide of her twin sister, which leads her to cross paths with Constantine — himself on the brink of death as a result of the lung cancer caused by his smoking habit.
Read more: Ranking the comic book movies of 2019
Constantine was released in the USA on 18 February, 2005, and delivered a muted box office result of $231m (£179m) worldwide from a budget of around $100m (£77m). More noticeable, though, was the negative critical reception. The movie is currently sat at a 46% approval score on Rotten Tomatoes, with the site’s consensus stating that Constantine “lacks focus” to follow through on its “intriguing premise”. Roger Ebert, in particular, was no fan of the movie and added it to his list of “most hated” films.
So in summary: critics hated Constantine, and audiences weren’t really that bothered.
Fast-forward a few years, though, and the tide for Constantine started to turn. Lawrence revealed in a 2011 interview that the movie had been “embraced” and built a “cult following” in the years since its release. Indeed, just about every list of the most underrated comic book movies tends to include a mention of Constantine as a film that didn’t get its due during its initial cinema release. Given the renaissance of Keanu Reeves in recent years — whether he’s aware of it or not — the Constantine fandom has only grown louder and more fervent.
In that same interview, Lawrence suggested that the age rating of the movie was a problem, stating he was stuck in a “weird PG-13-to-R no man's land”. There was discussion at the time of the movie being reshot and re-edited to gain a PG-13 rating in the USA, though it was ultimately released with an R — and the equivalent 15 certificate in the UK.
Read more: DC pushing R-rated comic book movies
Lawrence said he hopes to one day make a sequel that features “the hard-R scary version” of what the character can be. He reiterated this in 2018, telling Coming Soon: “If I’d known we were getting an R, I would have really made an R-rated movie. We followed all the PG-13 rules, but still got an R — so it’s not really an R.”
But aside from the compromised tone, the issue would seem to be that Constantine is just really unusual. In an era of simple, colourful comic book characters, there was little room for the glacial pacing, cynical style and theological musing of Lawrence’s movie — a very adult comic book story.
This is one of the ways in which the tide has shifted. Last year saw the dark, violent Joker become the most profitable comic book movie ever and this year has already delivered R-rated superhero thrills amid the swearing and silliness of Birds of Prey. Watched in 2020, the things that were off-putting about Constantine in 2005 now seem bold, innovative and compelling.
Read more: Birds of Prey and the history of Harley Quinn
It’s not that the movie is without flaws. Huge segments of the mythology are tangled to the point of incomprehension and Weisz gets very little to do in the second half of the story. There’s plenty to be enjoyed amidst the mess, however, from the stark vision of Hell as a kind of Upside Down — like the living world, but with more fire — and Reeves’ morose performance as a driven avenger with flashes of the unique charisma that would become John Wick.
If the stage has ever been set for a return to Constantine, it’s now. Reeves is at the height of his fame and has an assembled army of fans ready and waiting to fill multiplexes, while Lawrence has several other big movies under his belt. The ending of the first movie — and its post-credits scene — teased Constantine free of his cancer and, in an odd twist, Shia LaBeouf as an angel. With Lawrence committed to a hard-R tale that leans into the horror, this could be the recipe for a classic of the future.
Read more: Lawrence discusses Hunger Games experience
But regardless of what happens next, Constantine continues to be discovered by new viewers and new fans are introduced to its mad vision of Hellblazer’s comic book underworld on a daily basis. After a rocky introduction into the world 15 years ago, Lawrence’s odd duck of a movie is finally getting its moment in the spotlight.
With two of Reeves’ most memorable characters set to face off at the box office next year, it’s now worth revisiting another of his most interesting performances.