Francis Lawrence’s “Constantine” is a fantastic formal adaptation of a graphic novel. It is not merely a successful translation of this particular story, but also captures the form’s pacing and rhythm: pages and pages of inky atmosphere and mood-setting followed by swift, often unforgettably realized action sequences.
For example, early in the film Constantine and Angela are on a street talking when the lights go out. Lawrence provides a number of different shots as the city’s power cuts out, block by block. In print, these would be smaller, static panels leading up to the big moment, a two-page spread when Constantine lights a fire (apparently some kind of holy flame) that blows away all the demons which have been closing in on the two characters. On screen, Lawrence carefully established the scene, showed off his effects in a burst of CGI, and then quickly moved on.
In that and many other scenes Lawrence successfully translates the typical comic convention of the two-page action sequence that crackles with drama in the high style of the best comic artists. He understands the equilibrium of graphic novels, most of which balance a little action with plentiful background details. Most action-hungry directors miss this.
“Constantine” not only has the cadences of a good graphic novel but the looks, as well. Colors are vivid, almost painted, and blacks and whites are crisp and true. The shots are halfway between the campy superhero angles of yore and the slicker style we expect from movies. This, too, is another sort of faithfulness to the story’s original medium (the source material, DC/Vertigo’s “Hellblazer”, was a serial comic done in the style of a graphic novel). Comic artists, beginning with some of the early Alan Moore graphic novels in the 80’s, borrowed techniques from the screen to invent more fluid forms of storytelling. Odd as it sounds, a mark of this movie’s fidelity is Lawrence’s use of shots that look borrowed from a pen-and-paper artist who was himself borrowing from cinema. These angles include the fly on the wall, the shoelace view, the uppercut, and any number of camera placements that foreground some detail or other on the screen. A spider caught in a glass or a cigarette resting on a tabletop are two instances.
Despite these borderline gimmicky shots, Lawrence and his editor never let “Constantine” feel mannered. They have created a beautifully level tone by cutting the film perfectly. Static images mixed with a few tracking shots build pace and allow the audience to get an eyeful of the richly detailed surroundings, such as Constantine’s rows of water jugs, which might otherwise get passed over. This is the other end of the spectrum from the jittery kinetics of Sam Raimi (in all his work, not just the two “Spider-Man” movies). This film feels less like a serial comic and more like a graphic novel—moody, spacious, and patient with its tale. It expands the range of what comic book adaptations can look like.
As stories go, “Constantine” avoids any number of perils native to modern exorcist tales, which usually eschew the relative tastefulness of “The Exorcist” and go in for sunglasses, Eastern European hotties, acid house techno, and “demons” dressed in the Marquis de Sade’s Spring Collection. Impiously and impishly, the movie hums along with a tongue-in-cheek reimagining of the Bible as another kind of popular myth to plunder.
Lawrence and writer Kevin Brodbin borrowed as loosely and inventively from the Book of Revelations as, say, Joel Schumacher borrowed from Bram Stoker in “The Lost Boys”. At one point, when Constantine wearily asks, “What do the scrolls say?”, it’s amusing because all piety is shorn away. He’s merely looking for a loophole to help in the fight: the Bible has as much meaning to him as a set of instructions for an IKEA chair.
The objects in the film are of the monster-movie variety, like silver bullets and garlic cloves, rather than holy relics. Papa Midnight takes Constantine into a back room full of objects that might have come from a wax museum of pulp entertainment; the chair that Constantine needs to use is the chair, as in the electric chair at Sing Sing. Well, of course. We’ve already seen three-foot high mirrors capture demons, shavings from bullets aimed at the Pope, and a basin of water serve as a conduit into hell. What’s one more absurd talisman? For his next evil tcotchke I was waiting for Papa Midnight to break out Donald Rumsfeld’s spectacles.
Humor is yet another attribute Lawrence lifted from the pages of comic books. What many directors and writers are now discovering, in this golden era of comic book adaptations, is that comic books are often funny, but funny in ways that must be carefully transplanted to film. The makers of lesser adaptations, like the sequels to “Superman” and “Batman”, thought that tossing in various campy gags somehow matched the spirit of mirth in the comics. Not at all. The humor in comics, or at any rate graphic novels of the last twenty years, is much closer to meta-humor, postmodern jokes that show off a clever self-awareness. They not only acknowledge but revel in their pop art origins, and a few of the savvier comic book movies have tapped into that (movies in general, on the other hand, remain tirelessly self-important, as any Oscar telecast will prove).
Think of Wolverine’s joke about hating spandex uniforms in “X-Men”, or Peter’s grandmother telling him he’s not Superman in “Spider-Man”. Lawrence is just as canny here with all the religious mumbo-jumbo. There are plenty of goofy comic one-liners, starting with Constantine referring to a demon as an asshole and ending with his teaching Gabriel a lesson in pain; my favorite bit was Angela vomiting from the smell of sulphur after a demonic visit. The humor in the film lightens the proceedings without undermining the reality of the story. In fact, they highlight the story’s unreality even as they make it more believable.
In keeping with that open artificiality, Keanu Reeves was an inspired choice as the fallen hero Constantine. Reeves himself is one of those meta-thespians, always kind of acting and, well, kind of not. Constantine is meant to be an L.A. noir hero with similarities to Philip Marlowe, but whereas the noir heroes of the past were used-up men who had seen it all—a world war or two, Prohibition, spread of gambling, corruption of L.A. by monied interests—Reeves is the vacuous noir hero this generation deserves.
About twenty-six in this film, Constantine would have grown up on Nintendo and Sega, lost his virginity to Nine Inch Nails or Oasis, and come of age during the mindless consumerism of the Clinton years. What better actor than Reeves to play the role? He is pretty and vapid, too shallow to comprehend the deeper forces and appetites that drive human beings, and utterly bored in an age of miracles. Even the asceticism of Constantine’s outfit, the severe black jacket and tie, which might have made him a rugged throwback figure, is given away late in the movie when Satan stains the shirt and Constantine complains, “This was a two hundred dollar shirt!” You can almost see Bogart rubbing his eyes in disgust.
More pointedly, Reeves is great in “Constantine” if only because he is no longer Neo from “The Matrix” movies; he looks like a man let out of prison. Apparently braving the fires of hell is more fun than being lectured to in whole verbal paragraphs about free will, fate, and the importance of leather trenchcoats. When he gives the “world behind the world you know” speech to Angela, it’s the perfect contrast to the po-faced profundities of the Wachowski Brothers’ dour epic. The explanations for everything are so ridiculous that most of the time even Reeves seems bored by them, as he should.
Constantine just wants to get on with it. He sports a glazed fatigue on his waxy face after two decades of collecting all manner of Catholic trinkets and searching for extra verses in tomes like “Hell’s Bible” (apparently the oodles of sex, violence, and other lurid sins in the regular Bible aren’t enough for demons). During the first exorcist, when it’s apparent his primary cure isn’t going to work, he has the annoyed demeanor of a plumber who realizes he needs to go back to the truck for a bigger wrench.
A good deal of this movie’s qualities, then, are not necessarily intrinsic to the story. And looked at more narrowly, “Constantine” does fall apart in places. The film’s central elements are moldy. Most have been done before, though not necessarily better. The theological bits look like they were thrown into a hat and chosen at random; even Satan rolls his eyes at Constantine’s mention of the “Spear of Destiny”. But the cast is marvelous. Rachel Weisz lends a pair of piercing, emotive eyes to the movie that no penciler could have drawn better. The toughness and verve of her performance really add a lot to the film, especially considering she might have been a real drag: in classic noir terms, she is the dark damsel who requires the hero’s help.
Everyone else is in top form, especially Shia LaBouf, a sparkling Nickleodeon star who deserves a chance in movies, Tilda Swinton having fun as an androgynous Gabriel, and Peter Stormare, who plays Satan as a fey, middle-aged Puck creased and crusted by innumerable debaucheries, as likely to sell you a used Buick as he is to steal your soul; in his own inimitable way he’s as deliciously hammy as Pacino in “The Devil’s Advocate”. Lawrence also managed to capture a handful of great scenes, such as the priest’s death in the liquor store, the witty gag of the illegal alien, and the demon-swarm on the street. For all these reasons “Constantine” is enjoyable, and while I hope it has no sequel, it ought to be studied by future filmmakers as a prime example of how to adapt graphic novels.