Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Constantine" - "It's not always like it is in the books."

I’m pretty loose with my reasons for picking which movies from my collection to write about, but an upcoming concert and a YouTube video I recently watched will have my next few entries a bit more focused. Let me explain. First off, I’m going to see Bush this week (thirteen-year-old me is pumped...hell, thirty-three-year-old me is pretty pumped too...nostalgia!). In case you didn’t know, Gavin Rossdale is the lead singer of Bush, but he also dabbles in acting, and Constantine is his highest profile role. I just felt like watching this again before seeing them live, so I can feel like I’m seeing a band and  Hollywood star at the same time, even if the acting didn’t exactly work out for him.

Second, I went down a YouTube rabbit hole a few days ago and ended up on a video (by one of those movie channels like watchmojo, looper, cinefix, etc.) about critical disappointments that are actually good. As you can guess, Constantine was on there, which surprised me a bit, since I (for no reason in particular) assumed this movie was generally hated/ignored. I saw it as a sign that I must re-watch it and write about it. I also got fuel for a number of future articles, because it turned out I owned most of the movies discussed in the video. So in the next few weeks, expect articles about William Friedkin’s later work (Bug, The Hunted, Rules of Engagement), The Book of Eli, and Knowing. But for now: Constantine...starring Hollywood superstar Gavin Rossdale!

Constantine was a bit of a rarity for me when it came out. It was based on a comic book, but I knew next to nothing about the source material. I’m not much of a comic book guy (I like them, but movies have taken up most of my dork budget), but I’m pretty knowledgeable. Somehow, Hellblazer flew under my radar. So I went into Constantine to see a Matrix-style action movie about angels and demons. I wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t blow me away or anything, but I remember thinking it was overall a cool movie.

Cut to 2018. When I looked for this movie in my collection, I was worried that I had actually sold it years ago because it wasn’t in my comic book movie section. I know I didn’t know the source material, but I even keep Road to Perdition, Ghost World, and A History of Violence next to Thor and The Dark Knight and whatnot. I was relieved (?) when I found it in my sci-fi section. That just shows how little I considered this a comic book movie, which might be why I liked it then, and still like it now. But knowing it’s a comic book movie allowed me to appreciate a few things about it.

For one thing, Constantine is a rated R comic book movie. That was lost on me the first time. Granted, it’s a tame R that by 2018 standards could possibly pass as PG-13, but still. I do wish they had leaned in on the R a bit more and made a truly disturbing film.

The R rating was there to set the tone. This movie is not shy about its influences. The basic equation of it is The Exorcist + The Matrix + Chinatown = Constantine. The first two make sense. Constantine is an exorcist, and Reeves was just coming off The Matrix sequels. But Chinatown? Constantine is mainly a detective film, actually, so Chinatown is a pretty good reference point. The marketing department obviously thought this as one of the posters is very similar to Chinatown’s. It’s an odd combination, but it makes for a pretty interesting film, tonally.

I’m all about tone and world-building (which is why Blade Runner 2049 was my favorite film last year), and Constantine works for me on that level. This movie went so far in creating its underworld that it hardly bothers with the real world. I found that refreshing. Instead of getting twenty to thirty minutes of Rachel Weisz’s character being convinced what was really going on, we get one scene and the movie never looks back. Normally a film of this kind leans on the two world concept for laughs or to show just how different the two worlds are, but Constantine is confident enough in its other world to stay there throughout.

If the visuals and action were a bit more interesting, I would consider this an unappreciated gem. But, especially by 2018 standards, the CG is plain and relied on too heavily. The scenes in Hell are simply uninteresting. The demon design is kind of freaky, but overall those sequences lack imagination. It’s easy to see how director Francis Lawrence ended up making I Am Legend, another promising film with disappointing CG. As for the action...well, there isn’t much, despite the film trying to look like The Matrix. And that’s fine, since the action is a bit too slo-mo heavy anyway. The tone is enough for this movie, if only they did something truly interesting with the visuals. I would have loved to see what they would have done if they needed to use a practical set for Hell.

The surprisingly strong cast makes up for the uninspired visuals and action. Reeves may not look like his comic book counterpart, but he’s comfortable playing a sarcastic prick. Weisz is good, as usual. Shia LaBeouf is only mildly annoying in a sidekick role that is identical to his role in I, Robot, but it makes no sense for him to be in this movie when the source character is an adult who is more equal than sidekick. They should have left the character out entirely, and for a large chunk of the movie, they do just that. Djimon Hounsou is perfectly cast as Midnite, but like Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare, and yes, Gavin Rossdale, he isn’t given enough to do.

That’s my biggest problem with this movie this time around. It seemed like all of these characters had much more to do but got cut down to keep it at two hours. Rossdale, in particular, seems like an afterthought. He turns out to be responsible for the deaths of two of Constantine’s allies, but he has all of two minutes of screen time. I wonder if he was just that bad at acting or if it was to save time. His performance didn’t seem bad. He tends to menacingly whisper more than speak, but he definitely conveyed a demonic smarminess, which, I believe, was the goal.

The supporting roles ended up feeling more like cameos, but I wanted to spend much more time with all of those characters. I didn’t bother watching the deleted scenes on my “deluxe edition” DVD because I can only justify devoting so much time to this movie, but I can only assume these characters had at least one more scene each. If not, they should have.

Speaking of devoting too much time, I’ll wrap this up. Don’t worry, I’ll still do my signature rambling random thoughts for this movie, but I’m going to go back to making that a section I add at the end. I like Constantine, but I don’t know why I bought this. I literally only watched it again because of that YouTube video and because of an impending Bush concert, and I will likely never watch it again. I would sell it, but who would buy it, especially since I lost the mini-Hellblazer comic book that came with it? Oh well, at least I know now that it belongs in my comic book section, not the sci-fi section.

Random Thoughts

“It’s not always like it is in the books.” Keanu says this about halfway through, and I think it is only there for fans in anticipation of the bitching about how he doesn’t look like the comic book character.

There’s a great bit of product placement when Constantine looks at a Chevy billboard soon after getting a cancer diagnosis. The ad reads: “Time is running buy a new Chevy.” First, I wonder if Chevy knew this was going to be the placement and were on board with it. Second, I appreciate product placement that doesn’t hide. Ads exist in the real world; what’s wrong with a character looking at one? That seems more natural than Constantine clearly getting into a Chevy multiple times.

Definitely only own this because it was during my “must buy one DVD a week” phase.

DVD extras really hammer on why Keanu doesn’t look like Constantine. “It just didn’t look right…” What they mean is, “he wouldn’t look enough like Neo.”

Yes, I watched some DVD extras, but I just couldn’t bring myself to watch the promised 18 minutes of deleted scenes.

Producer Laura Schuler Donner claims this was in the pipeline even before the first X-Men (even though this came out five years later) as evidence that they were committed to the story. But I think this movie only exists because of The Matrix.

Richard Corliss compares this to Blade Runner in a blurb on the box! What?!

Had no idea this was Francis Lawrence’s first film. Honestly, it’s quite impressive, both that he was given such a big first film and the overall style of a first-time filmmaker. And I actually think the CG is better in this film than in I Am Legend.

Peter Stormare might be the most interesting version of the devil I’ve ever seen.

Gavin Rossdale’s half-melted face legitimately disgusted me.

I kind of crapped on the film’s CG and whatnot, but there are a couple cool moments. I liked when Constantine chased Rachel Weisz through the building. And bits here and there (grabbing the hospital bracelet as dozens of demons grab him, shining a light to drive off a horde of demons, kicking a crab directly into the camera [seriously, I like that for some reason]) were decent.

Kicking a crab is a good place to stop. Next week: The William Friedkin PTSD Trilogy - Rules of Engagement, The Hunted, and Bug.

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