CONSTANTINE - Blu-ray review

...maybe I'm just the only person on the planet who thought it was a comedy and enjoyed its whimsy.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Constantine" may be one of the best awful movies ever made. Or maybe I'm just the only person on the planet who thought it was a comedy and enjoyed its whimsy. In any case, even though critics were none too kind to the film, I've always liked it. I liked it in a theater; I liked it on standard-def DVD; I liked it even more in high-def on HD DVD; and I continue to like it in its new Blu-ray transfer (although, to be fair, the BD looks the same to me as the HD DVD, and there are the same bonus materials involved).

Based on the character of John Constantine from the Vertigo "Hellblazer" comic books, this 2005 movie version will probably upset fans of Alan Moore, Jamie Delano, and Garth Ennis's demon-fighting hero with its outlandish dark humor, its wild-eyed monsters, its muddled plot, and its starchy star, Keanu Reeves. Nevertheless, taken in the right light--that is, with no expectation of finding anything in it even remotely serious--"Constantine" can be fun.

The movie's prologue begins by introducing a properly dire tone: "'He who possesses the Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in his hands.' The Spear of Destiny has been missing since the end of World War II."

Presumably, the Spear of Destiny to which they refer is the celebrated Spear of Longinus or Spear of Vengeance mentioned in the Arthur legends, the spear reputedly used to pierce Christ's side during the Crucifixion, and the spear Hitler claimed to have found (and lost after the Second World War). One such spear currently resides in the Hofburg Museum in Vienna, but it's thought to be a medieval fake. Anyway, in the movie a Mexican scavenger finds the spear, and afterwards the spear facilitates the entrance of demons into our world. I have no idea where that idea came from, but then, as I've said, we not meant to take anything in this film seriously.

John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a demon slayer, a guardian of mankind against the evil forces of Lucifer and his minions. According to Constantine, God and the Devil made some kind of bet on which one of them could best persuade people to follow him. They sent down angels and demons to subtly urge people to do good or bad. Usually, these angels and demons remain unseen, whispering quietly in our ear, but now things have changed. Constantine's job is to seek out the spirit demons when they get too frisky and send them back to Hell, but suddenly he finds some of these demons are crossing over bodily into our world. They're not supposed to do that. Something is amiss.

Apparently, only Constantine can stop the demons from taking over the world. I feel so much safer when Keanu Reeves is around.

The fun begins with the opening sequence, where the aforementioned scavenger finds the Spear of Destiny while digging through some rubble, and it immediately makes him invulnerable to pain or death. What else can you do but laugh at his subsequent collision with a car in the middle of nowhere and the incredible dent he makes in the automobile? At least, you'll laugh once you've picked yourself up off the floor; I guarantee it will give you quite a start. And it's also a remarkably well-executed shot for its technical expertise.

Next, we have a scene straight out of "The Exorcist," with a young woman literally climbing the walls and hanging from the ceiling, snarling and hissing, clearly possessed of the devil. Constantine takes such exorcisms in stride, punching out the demon as a part of a day's work.

So, why is Constantine a demon hunter (or "Hellblazer" in the graphic novels)? Seems he attempted to commit suicide in his youth, a mortal sin according to God, and now he's trying to buy his way into Heaven by doing God's work. With his natural-born sixth sense (he can see dead people, and he can see living ones for what they really are), he's a one-man army of the Lord; except that the Lord is not exactly going for it, and Constantine is just hoping for the best. To make matters worse, the poor guy's dying of lung cancer.

The plot really gets going when the twin sister of a police detective, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), jumps off a building to her death. The coroner says it's suicide, but Angela believes somebody pushed her. She goes to Constantine for help because on a surveillance tape taken of the fall, her sister's last word was "Constantine." Is that ominous or what?

There's a solid supporting cast who give the story a good deal of color and humor along the way. Shia La Beouf plays Constantine's young apprentice, Chas Kramer, an amusing cab driver and wannabe demon fighter. Djimon Hounson plays Papa Midnite, who is something of a sorcerer and the owner of a night club that is neutral ground for half-breeds, demonic or angelic. Max Baker plays Beeman, Constantine's squirrelly supplier of occult tools. Tilda Swinton plays Gabriel, a goofy, androgynous, half-breed angel. British singer Gavin Rossdale plays Balthazar, a spooky half-breed demon. And Peter Stormore steals the show as Lucifer, a petulant, tough-guy, gangster type with wonderfully weird voice inflections. I'd liked to have seen more of him in the film.

Not that the movie is all plot and characters; it's educational, too. For example, Beeman provides Constantine with the following materials and advice: "Bullet shavings from the assassination attempt on the Pope; holy water ampules from the River Jordan; and, oh, you'll love this--a screech beetle. To the fallen it's like nails on a chalkboard." Besides that, we learn that the quickest way to visit Hell, short of doing bad things and dying, is to stick your feet in a tub of water. So, say you're soaking your extremities in a hot basin of water after a long day's work, and your wife tells you to go to Hell; hey, you just might. Admit it: How many movies can offer such invaluable counsel?

Then, there are the scenes that stick in memory. I already mentioned the car crash; another involves swarms of insects that attack Constantine and end up smashing against the front end of a passing automobile. Think of it as your worst bug-on-the-windshield nightmare. Or how about brass knuckles with crosses fashioned on them, the perfect weapon for smacking demons.

And there are some good lines: "I don't believe in the devil," says Angela. "Well, you should," responds Constantine. "He believes in you." Or Angela's observation, "I guess God has a plan for all of us" and Constantine's reply, "God's a kid with an ant farm." Unfortunately, there are not many such lines. Mostly, there's just a truckload of CGI graphics interspersed with the occasional quick rejoinder.

Yes, Constantine is a pretty cynical fellow and has a smart-ass comeback for everything. Too bad he's nothing like the Constantine of the comic books, who is much more rugged looking, with light, sandy hair. This is yet another thing to incite the wrath of the books' most devoted followers. But as one who had never read the comic books, did I care?

Eventually, Constantine learns that in order for the penultimate demon, the Devil's son, to cross over into our plane, he would need God's help, which comprises the second half of the film, where elements of Kevin Smith's "Dogma" come into play and everything gets even sillier. By the end of the movie, it's impossible to follow any of the action or tell what's going on, but what, me worry? The special effects are all the show, and Reeves's wooden acting fits the absurdity of the situations perfectly.

Understand that "Constantine" does not work as a superhero comic-book flick any more than the original theatrical release of "Daredevil" did. But "Constantine" has a lot more in it that one can view from a purely comical angle. Heck, even Keanu Reeves comes off as funny the way I see it. Pretty bizarre, huh?

This Blu-ray disc offers up the picture in its original theatrical-release dimensions of 2.40:1. Warners use a dual-layer BD50 for the VC-1, 1080p transfer, providing a high-def image that is obviously sharper and clearer than its SD counterpart, although some slightly oversaturated hues continue, probably intentional on the director's part; he seems especially partial to gold, green, yellow, and brown color schemes. The definition is mostly excellent, with some moments of softness, and the black levels are superb, intense for maximum contrasts. The touch of fine grain I noticed in the SD and HD DVD editions remains in BD, especially in darker scenes, appropriate to the film-like quality of the reproduction.

You'll find English soundtracks in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1. Needless to say, I listened in TrueHD, which is top-notch. The surround sound is all-encompassing, enveloping the listener in a complete aural experience. The frequency response is wide, the bass fairly deep, the midrange clear, the dynamics strong, and the channel separation precise. The "Dragon's Breath" flamethrower makes a particularly hair-raising noise in the surrounds, as do various rain storms, thunderclaps, telephone rings, weird voices, and fires of Hell. The sound is clean and well focused, with a taut low end. If there is any minor problem, it's that the audio has so extended a dynamic range, it may annoy some listeners who will want to keep turning the sound up and down every few minutes. No problem; it's as it should be.

Warner Bros. include on the Blu-ray disc all of the extras found in their two-disc SD set plus the "In-Movie Experience" found on their HD-DVD edition. The "In-Movie Experience" uses voice-overs and visual inserts of the director and various others commenting on the action of the film, the acting, the costumes, the makeup, etc. It's like having a behind-the-scenes documentary running simultaneously during the movie. I have to admit it beats the usual voice-over audio commentary.

The remainder of the extras include two audio commentaries, the first by director Francis Lawrence and producer Akiva Goldsman, and the second by screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello. Their comments can be informative, at least when they're not kidding around.

After that is a lengthy series of short featurettes. These are "Channeling Constantine," "Conjuring Constantine," "Director's Confessional," "Collision with Evil," "Holy Relics," "Shotgun Shootout," "Hellscape," "Visualizing Vermin," "Warrior Wings," "Unholy Abduction," "Constantine's Cosmology," "Foresight: The Power of Pre-Visualization," "Demon Face," and "A Writer's Vision."
A music video, "Passive," by A Perfect Circle. The items last anywhere from a minute-and-a-half to fifteen minutes each and contain a lot of repetition. You'll be clicking for days.

Things continue with fourteen widescreen deleted scenes, including an alternate ending in a graveyard, again with optional director's commentary; a widescreen teaser and a widescreen theatrical trailer; thirty-four scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Finally, unlike the HD DVD edition, the Blu-ray package includes a standard-definition digital copy of the movie for use with iTunes and Windows Media devices.

Parting Thoughts:
By most standards of good filmmaking, "Constantine" is a pretty ragged affair. Yet I did not find it one of those so-bad-it's-good movies. I've honestly enjoyed it all four times I've seen it, viewed from my admittedly distorted perspective as one who interpreted practically every scene as comedy.

I have no idea if the filmmakers intended their movie to be a comedy or not. On one of the commentaries, they say they did try to infuse the film with some humor. I know the movie tickled my funny bone. Yeah, I recognize that a lot of other people don't see it that way, but I'll have to live with it. And the Blu-ray video and sound just make a good thing better.


Film Value