TNMC (US), August 28, 2003

Constantine Script Review


"Sometimes you can read a script and tell that something is wrong, that it just isn't as good as it could be, but for the life of you, you cannot pin down exactly why. There isn't a specific failing. When I reviewed Paul Anderson’s script for Resident Evil about a year ago, I had this particular problem. RE was just... all right. I suppose the worst you could say about it was that it never went far enough, because you couldn't pin down one big fat honking mistake that squandered the entire screenplay.

I make this my introduction because, in trying to find something good about this undated draft for Constantine (credited to Kevin Brodbin), the best I could do was say that its mistakes are clear, and clearly fixable. They are also, unfortunately, huge, and fixing them would basically mean throwing out the bulk of this draft and starting over from scratch.

Constantine is, of course, the adaptation of DC’s classic comic book series Hellblazer, which is still going strong and remains one of the Vertigo line’s flagship titles. The series follows the exploits of John Constantine, the kind of magician who doesn't waste his time pulling rabbits from hats, but rather wastes his time drinking, smoking, and doing the occasional good/bad/morally questionable deed. Like most comic book adaptations these days, the trick in adapting Hellblazer was wading through the myriad of storylines and deciding whether to adapt previously existing material (like Spider-Man), or to start anew (the Batman series, for example, which played very fast and loose with the original storylines).

A large portion of this draft takes the former route, adapting one of the most acclaimed, certainly the most famous Hellblazer storyline: Garth Ennis’ 'Dangerous Habits'. In the comic, John Constantine found himself hopelessly afflicted with lung cancer, brought about by decades of chain-smoking. For anyone else, the fear of death alone would be enough, but Constantine had the added worry of knowing exactly what’s waiting for him in the afterlife - an eternity in Hell. What’s worse, in the second issue of the story arc, he tricks Lucifer himself into swallowing Holy Water, guaranteeing that when he gets to Hell, his torment will dwarf that of all the rest of the damned put together. But then, right at the end, the clever bastard figures out a way out of it all, in one of the most ingenious 11th hour twists it has ever been my privilege to read.

But as great a movie as this story alone would make, it wouldn't exactly be the kind of horror-themed movie that breaks box office records, so the screenwriter made the wise decision to combine the decidedly talky 'Dangerous Habits' storyline with another, more action/horror oriented one. In principle, this idea is a brilliant one - it allows you to introduce the super-cool Constantine with a huge flaw (making the magician mortal, and thusly more sympathetic to audiences), tell a more conventional horror storyline, and then hit us at the end with a conclusion that not only resolves the traditional storyline, but manages to cure Constantine of his malignant tumor, leaving room for sequels while at the same time wowing audiences with the climax’s cleverness.

In practice however, it doesn't really work at all, because the storyline they chose to combine it with is trite and poorly executed. Having not read every single issue of Hellblazer (cut me some slack - it’s been around for about twenty years), I'm not entirely certain that it isn't an adaptation of an existing storyline. However, the quality of the concept is hardly indicative of the quality of any of the Hellblazer comics I myself have read. More exact reasons for why I feel that it doesn't work will follow, but in the spirit of full-disclosure, it covers the serial murders of psychics and magicians by the devil himself (well, one of them - in Hellblazer, Lucifer, Beelzebub and Balthazar share leadership of the underworld). Constantine could be next at any given time. The rationale, however, is a poorly explained, not particularly interesting notion that one of the devils is building themselves a stairway of souls to the mortal world. Or something like that. The main plot point is a metaphor, and unless you're Alan Moore, that kind of twist generally feels like unconfident writing.

Much ado has been made over some superficial changes to the essential Hellblazer universe in this draft, and these complaints are mostly justified, especially since the changes contribute absolutely nothing to the plot in general. Constantine will probably be portrayed as an American if the rumors have any weight at all (and they probably do, since Nicholas Cage was originally cast in the role), which I think is the second most offensive of the three primary points of contention. John Constantine is British - this isn't some kind of character detail you can gloss over. It’s a vital component of his personality and his experiences. (It would be like making Spider-Man British, which would fundamentally change the character.) The saddest thing however is that at no point in this script does any line of dialogue he says or any action he takes preclude him being played by an Englishman. (Truth be told, the only way I could get through much of this draft was by imagining John as played by Jason Statham, a casting choice I can only pray for.) The least offensive of the three is that the action takes place in New York. Yes, England would have been nice, but it’s hardly integral to this particular storyline. It would even have been easy to explain why Englishman John Constantine was in New York - he has cancer, and the best doctors are in America. He doesn't want to die, so he went to America to try and get out of it. A potentially damaging point of contention with the fanboys could easily be avoided with a simple line of expository dialogue.

But the worst of the seemingly superficial changes, in my mind, is that in the screenplay, John’s cancer has changed from being in his lungs, to being in his brain. Yes, that may seem small, but it played an integral part in the 'Dangerous Habits' storyline. John was being undone by his own conscious actions. He knew that smoking was bad for him, he did it anyway, and he is paying the price. This mirrored perfectly the fact that he was going to Hell. He knew the difference between right and wrong, he did bad things anyway, and he will pay the price. By taking away that his cancer is his own doing, he goes from being the flawed anti-hero to a martyr, and the last person John Constantine can be compared to is Jesus Christ. Maybe the Marlboro people got to the screenwriter, maybe not, but it feels like a completely unnecessary, entirely detrimental change in an otherwise fantastic subplot.

But while all these things are bad, none of them are the single worst aspect of Constantine. No, this one is all new, but at the same time one of the oldest clichés in thriller history. I speak of course about my biggest pet peeve in all of filmmaking, the most annoying character type ever crafted, and the single most unnecessary: The Exposition Girl. No, she doesn't give exposition... this is that girl (occasionally a guy, but a female is more common) who serves little to no other purpose than to have things explained to her, thusly halting the suspense and storyline altogether. You may recognize her from such films as Blade, Broken Arrow, or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (okay, that was John Cusack, but you get the point). The one in Constantine is named Angela Murdoch.

Constantine as a script had failed to inspire me by page 11, but at the bottom of page twelve, where Angela was introduced, my heart stopped, because I had read one of the most terrifying blocks of character description I will hopefully I ever have to read in my life:

'... ANGELA MURDOCH. Poised strength with vulnerable eyes that beguile her drive. Fiery and intelligent but she'll decide when to show it. She knows all the tricks. That’s why she made Detective Sergeant at 28.'

Anyone who reads enough scripts knows that the above means the following:

1. This tough as nails female authority figure is just a scared little girl inside...
2. ... which means she will need to be saved, because women are never allowed to be able to save themselves in these movies (The Silence of the Lambs being the only memorable exception).
3. 'She knows all the tricks' signifies that she doesn't know anything, really, and will have to have Constantine explain everything to her. But because 'she knows all the tricks,' she won't believe him at all until it suits the storyline.
4. She’s 28, which means that she will be played by an attractive-Gwyneth-Paltrow-type, which means that she will have sex with the main character.

All of these predictions turned out to be true, by the way. There’s no way around saying that Angela Murdoch is one of the most singularly annoying non-characters I have ever read, and serves no distinct purpose other than to have things explained to her and be the subject of an annoying Angel Heart-esque twist at the end, and make John’s Cure for Cancer twist seem noble, as opposed to desperate. Angela is the kind of the female character that people who don't like to write female characters usually write, and I found myself wishing throughout most of the script that she would just be written out of most of her scenes and replaced with some character-driven interior monologues instead.

Constantine isn't all bad - I doubt I could ever have mustered up the courage to write a review that was only capable of damning someone else’s work. The actual murders committed in the film are all memorable, and worthy of appearing if not in this movie, then in another horror movie more suited to them. Whenever John doesn't have to explain things to Angela, and just gets to be John Constantine, he has memorable moments and comes across as a damnably devilish rogue. And again, the concept of combing 'Dangerous Habits' with another, more visceral storyline is a brilliant one. But the problems with Constantine too far outweigh these well-handled moments and well-conceived notions, and as a whole the script comes across as completely uncharacteristic of Hellblazer, be it as a result of the actual characters, or just its extremely formulaic nature."

(Review submitted by Hollyfeld.)

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