Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Ranty Film Review: Constantine

So, these four suicide bombers walk into a bar...

What? Too soon, y'think?

OK then. I'm going to talk about something other than the London bombings. I do have a fairly long piece written about the events of last Thursday, but I've decided to wait a while before publishing my analysis (if indeed I ever do). In truth I'm a little concerned about the reaction it'll receive. I decided to examine some of the philosophical issues involved rather than the overt political ones (after all, according to my academic certification I'm a philosopher by trade*). Unfortunately, though, that kind of dispassionate philosophical analysis doesn't always present us with neat and popular conclusions. Sometimes keeping schtumm on an issue is the best course of action.

So instead of politics and philosophy, how's about a film review? After all, if I stop writing about the films and music I like, well... well then the terrorists will have won.

(That line, incidentally, has been used by at least half of all active UK bloggers during the past week. As a gesture of solidarity I decided to use it too.)


* I take a peculiar delight in the combined look of exasperation and dismay on my father's face when I describe philosophy as "a trade".


Constantine

Oh yes indeed. I'm talking here about the film adaptation of the DC-Vertigo comic book series, Hellblazer. This review will contain massive big fuckoff spoilers by the way. Plot elements from film and books will be revealed, compared and contrasted. But before I give you my opinion of the movie I should point out two things...

Firstly, Hellblazer is the comic book I followed longer than any other. It's the book that got me into comics in the early 90s (I didn't read comic books when I was a kid) and via Hellblazer I discovered writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman and many others (who all did books or stories in the DC-Vertigo range at one point... or were connected to them in some way).

Secondly, John Constantine - the central character in Hellblazer - is easily my favourite comic book character. In fact, he's one of my favourite characters in all of literature.

To me, Hellblazer and John Constantine are one and the same. The comic book is the character. That he's a powerful sorcerer in a world where angels and demons are fighting a bloody battle for the destiny of humankind is merely the headtrip backdrop against which is played the real drama... what's happening inside Constantine. He's a finely nuanced character... part film noir private eye, part faithless preacher, part brutal murderer, part messiah and part shaman. One part of each of those to five parts fucked-up nihilist punk.

More importantly, John Constantine was clearly the creation of writers who hung out with the same kind of people I did. So although he's a larger than life character in a fantastical world, he's also more true-to-life from my perspective than anyone in a TV soap opera, or even on (spit!) Big Brother. He uses language in the same way I do. His internal monologue takes the same kinds of tangents as mine. His attitude towards the world was - at the time I was reading Hellblazer - very similar to mine. He laughed at the same sick shit.

One thing about John Constantine though... he's a far bigger bastid than even the wankiest of the bastids that I've ever encountered. We love John as a character; but we'd emigrate to avoid the fucker in real life.

So how does the film approach this complex character? Well. It doesn't. John Constantine, the scouse punk living in London is now John Constantine, the keanu reeves living in Los Angeles. And despite being a fan of both Bill and Ted films as well as the first two Matrix movies, when you turn John Constantine from a scouse punk into a keanu reeves it's just not going to work. Seriously.

Here's my thing... what Warner Brothers have done is put Keanu Reeves into an occult action blockbuster and used Hellblazer as a "brand" for marketing purposes. They haven't actually filmed the books. At least, not if you believe the books are about the character rather than the specifics of the various plot devices (which are wonderful and horrifying and enthralling, but not actually what Hellblazer is about). They've merely exploited it as a commercial opportunity.

And when an artist does that; allows something of genuine artistic merit to be transformed into yet another random piece of pop-cultural flotsam on an even footing with car adverts and boy bands; then it's unavoidable that the original work gets damaged.

And that irks me.

If Da Vinci were alive today, what would we think if he painted a ruddy great Coca-Cola logo across the top of the Mona Lisa and insisted that every official reproduction included it, as part of his multi-media merchandising deal? And before you act all pretend-outraged that I would compare the Mona Lisa to the comic book character John Constantine, let me say that I've seen that painting and was singularly unimpressed. I mean it's nice, but the reason it's so revered is because of what a far-out bloke Da Vinci was and the Mona Lisa has become his icon and - by extension - the icon of the entire Rennaissance and of European rationalism.

So yeah, it's a good painting and all, but the true importance of the Mona Lisa lies in what we've invested in it. Which is not to say that intrinsic artistic value doesn't exist. I believe very firmly that it does as it happens, but it's rare and it tends to be drowned out by the hype and garbage masquerading as it, and outnumbering it ten thousand to one.

On which note, back to Constantine. Warner Brothers could have improved the film immensely had they bought the rights, used the world and the plot devices, but had the original John Constantine appear in a cameo role played by either David Bowie or Rhys Ifans (depending on which side of Constantine they wanted to show in the scene)... Johnny Depp or James Marsters if they insisted on using an American actor... he arrives briefly, helps out Keanu Reeves (playing some American Constantine-wannabe) in a crucial scene, and disappears into the night.

Those of us who knew the comics, therefore, could enjoy the film on the same level as the 90% of the audience who never read the books (i.e. as a big-budget action blockbuster). And we'd get the extra thrill of seeing the various plot devices that we knew and loved being reworked cinematically. That stuff would all be in-jokes to existing fans. But by presenting the film as a version of the John Constantine story, the fans of the books are the butt of the joke rather than being in on it. We're being laughed at by a few cynical Hollywood bastids with obscene bank-accounts and desperately sad inner lives. Because the mainstream audience doesn't get the joke either.

My flat-mate defended the film by suggesting that it was conscious iconoclasm. That the film was about change, that it tells a story of John Constantine's transformation, and that criticism of such changes are therefore missing the point.

And y'know, I agree that's a perfectly valid way to approach a comic book character with a cult following. Confound the bastids! That's what Alan Moore would do!

But that's not what the film does. There's a couple of cute, knowing lines in the script about how "it's not like the books". But the character portrayed by Keanu Reeves (and this, I guess, is the real problem) actually isn't John Constantine. He's got the same name, he lives in the same world, he faces some of the same situations and shares some of the same acquaintances... he's clearly meant to be John Constantine.

But he isn't.

So the whole premise of "change" is flawed. He doesn't start out as John Constantine and end up as Keanu Reeves. He starts out as Keanu Reeves and ends up exactly the same. They even changed the entire motivating back-story to Constantine's character, turning him from a bastid into a victim.

When we first meet John (in the film and relevant book), he discovers that he has lung cancer. But he can't die because the devil will claim his soul and torture him for all eternity. Why does the devil get his soul? Well, in the film he was driven to suicide in his teens because of his visions and lack of understanding parents. But he was rescucitated after 2 minutes. Suicide is a mortal sin, however, so the devil gets his soul once he eventually snuffs it. Constantine spends his time trying to atone for his suicide and earn his soul back from Satan.

In the books, however, Constantine was an angry punk who got into black magick. He wasn't in control of what was going on, but nonetheless found himself involved in a satanic ritual in Newcastle where a young girl was sacrificed to a demon, damning her soul to an eternity of (gruesomely portrayed) suffering... Constantine is left in shock, holding the girl's severed arm and realising that he's going to pay for what's he's just done.

As you can see... right from the get-go we're not dealing with the same character. John Constantine is supposed to be haunted by metaphorical demons as well as real ones! It's not iconoclasm to simply leave out pretty much all of the essential facets of a character... it's just bad film-making.

It's a Big Dog's Cock of a film. Which is so near to, yet so far from, the dog's bollocks. It assaults the senses in exactly the way a blockbuster occult action thingie is supposed to. It chugs along at a great breakneck pace. And then, every minute or two, you remember that Keanu Reeves is supposed to be playing John Constantine from Hellblazer and everything screeches to a halt. You don't see iconoclasm on the screen, you see laziness. Turning subtle and inventive writing into a 90 minute rock video is actually piss easy if you're a rock-video director and someone bungs you a shedload of cash.

Attacking the shallowness and ineptitude of Hollywood may be like shooting fishing in a barrel, but whenever Hollywood consumes and shits out something of worth... well, frankly I feel it's appropriate to break out the gatling gun and let rip. Water, dead fish and bits of broken barrel flying in all directions. Fuck it.

And just in the cause of gratuitous fun-making, I want to close with a comparison of how another plot element is handled in the books and in the film.

As the movie draws to it's sorry conclusion, Constantine realises that hell is just about to break out on earth and humanity will be consumed by demons and it'll all be very grim indeed. This was engineered by an unholy alliance of angels and demons. Constantine decides that to prevent this he must kill himself and persuade Satan to intervene ('cos Satan will be collecting his soul after all). This he does... and his sacrifice not only saves the world, the love interest, and the eternal soul of her twin sister; but it absolves him of the suicide thingie and Satan doesn't get his soul. However rather than allow him entry to heaven, Satan cures his lung cancer, keeping Constantine on earth in the hope of claiming his soul in the sequel.

"Fair enough", you say, "that's pretty much what I'd expect from an occult action movie".

Contrast that with how the book handles similar material. Constantine realises that his various wheelings and dealings (already resulting in several deaths) haven't cured his cancer and he now faces imminent death. So he decides to sell his soul to three extremely powerful demons (Lucifer is AWOL at this point and hell is ruled by a trinity of nasties). Should he die, therefore, all three would be duty bound to collect and it would spark a civil war in hell. Constantine is aware that this would result in an upset in the cosmic balance and be catastrophic for humanity. At which point he slashes his wrists.

All three demons arrive to collect his soul, realise that he's screwed them, and are forced to cure his cancer to give them time to work out how to deal with the situation. So the story ends with him placing all of humanity in jeopardy of eternal horrors in order to save his own skin. Then he sparks up a cigarette.

8 Comments:

Anonymous iotar said...

>> So instead of politics and philosophy, how's about a film review?

Politics and philosophy never get me into as much trouble as film criticism, n'est ce pas?

14/7/05 17:31  
Blogger Gyrus said...

It should be pointed out (for the record) that the aforementioned flat-mate was defending the film on a devil's advocate basis, and even though he never read the comic, found the film to be a 0.6-dimensional act of American cultural imperialism that barely deserves even a bad review.

15/7/05 09:16  
Blogger Larry Teabag said...

I've never heard of the Hellrazor books (they sound pretty cool), but I'd call you a "masochist" for going to see it even after you knew that they'd cast Keanu Reeves in the lead. That should have tipped you off as to the sort of insubstantial Hollywood tripe that you were letting yourself in for!

Of course it's well worth slagging the bastids off for turning something great into something bland and forgettable, but you shouldn't have to torment yourself for 90 minutes to do that!

15/7/05 16:00  
Blogger Larry Teabag said...

Oops. Sorry, as I obviously don't need to tell you, when I said "Hellrazor", I meant "Hellblazer". Not to be confused with "Hellraiser".

15/7/05 18:57  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

I should point out Larry, that I was well aware that it was Hollywood tripe long before I saw it. And I rented it from a cheap online DVD rental place... I certainly didn't "go to see it".

But the truth is; I couldn't possibly not see a movie based on the Hellblazer books. When I rant about how Corporate Hollywood is defiling our culture, I don't want to be like one of those christians complaining about The Last Temptation of Christ without having seen it.

As for the masochism... well quality grass has the dubious ability to make even the worst Hollywood drek bearable.

15/7/05 20:18  
Blogger L said...

well, it could have been worse.

it could have been Mariah Carey starring in "Glitter"

19/7/05 05:16  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, I thought it was pretty good. But I was never a reader of Hell Blazer. Like my own series, "Dark Forces", Keanu resembles a troubled soul desperately trying to make things right for the mortal plain (my character is a renegade demon). Had this not been based off a book series, I think it could've stood very well on it's own, y'know? Just some thoughts for the mind. Peace.

20/7/05 20:27  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've heard that there is talk of a Constantine sequel.
I think it sounds slightly more like how you described his past:-

"So, we would talk about what could we do? What happens to Constantine? He's a heroin addict in Morocco. He's got a spell, he's killing people and he's trying not to kill people so he's knocking himself out."
Keanu Reeves.

22/2/07 10:20  

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