See You In Hell
Keanu Reeves' John Constantine may hate the world around him, but he's willing to go to hell and back to save it
by Todd Casey
The early morning sun breaks over the Hollywood hills and glints off the brass placard of stage 16 of the Warner Brothers studio lot. The plaque indicates this cavernous stage was once home to Batman Returns, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. But as the heavy metal door creaks open to reveal the smoky, dimly lit set inside, it’s immediately clear that Constantine (due in theaters February 11) owes more to "The Big Sleep", the film noir thriller shot there is 1946 than any of these flashy superhero blockbusters.
On this December day the stage houses Papa Midnight’s office, a comfortable lounge soaked in the red glow of soft lights and filled with a nearly opaque cloud of cigar smoke with liquor bottles strewn about and crimson candles casting shadows on the blood colored walls. It looks like the kind of place you could find a gruff private eye sipping whiskey and lamenting a love lost. This parlor seemly plucked from the pages of a Raymond Chandler crime novel is the last place you’d ever hope to find a superhero which means that it’s a sure spot to find John Constantine. Keanu Reeves, the 40 year old actor that helped propel "The Matrix" trilogy into the sci-fi stratosphere, paces back and forth softly rehearsing the diverse dialogue he will shortly deliver as Constantine, the occult mage who stars in DC/Vertigo’s critically acclaimed Hellblazer series. As the crew buzzes around him dimming lights and waving aside stinky smoke, Reeves looks alone deeply entrenched in a noir world of gloomy thoughts - he just found his inner John Constantine and it’s time to roll tape.
Metropolis skies belong to Superman and Gotham’s gritty alleyways to Batman, leaving the sprawling streets of Los Angeles up for grabs - and Hell’s demons just sunk their teeth in.
In the comics, Constantine's exploits took him from Morocco to Hell itself, but the majority of his misadventures occur in London. Although setting the film in LA sparked the ire of fanboys, first time feature director Francis Lawrence sees it as the perfect place for a shady magician to make his stand against pure evil.
"When you start to deal with comic book movies, especially when they’re shot in London and deal with this kind of subject matter, they all start to look the same," describes Lawrence while on a break from a full day of shooting. "We wanted to tap into the film’s noir hard-boiled angle of Constantine and you can’t get more noir than Los Angeles."
Constantine finds himself in the City of Angels beating back the demons threatening to thrust their way into the world of humans, which is already inundated with half-breed creatures that are souls returned from Heaven or Hell and wrapped in human form. Full-on demons aren’t supposed to be able to cross over into man’s world, but then again, Constantine was never supposed to slip out of Hell.
The irreverent detective already died once and, now that lung cancer is promising to bury him a second time, Constantine must race to do whatever it takes to ensure he doesn’t wind up in the playground of Satan (Peter Stormare) a second time. J.C. plays Mulder to the skeptical Scully of Detective Angela Dobson (Rachel Weisz) as she tries to uncover the mystery behind the apparent suicide of her twin sister and the ghastly phenomenon occurring in LA. Chaz (Shia LaBeouf), a teenage boy who idolizes Constantine, and witch doctor turned club owner Papa Midnight (Djimon Hounsou) aid the pair as they struggle to prevent the malevolent half-breed Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale) from unleashing hell on earth.
Mankind is largely unaware of the imminent doom and would be powerless to stop it anyway, leaving Constantine to play the hero. Too bad for them he’s anything but.
As Keanu Reeves reclines in an empty director’s chair, enjoys a cigarette and waits for the crew to finish his entrance into Papa Midnight’s office, he looks entirely unprepared to save the world. But he is perfectly prepared to deliver his lines as Constantine.
"Constantine is a heroic anti-hero," chuckles Reeves, "I think of him as a hero because he’s fighting against all odds. He’s a man who is trying to find his place in the world and come to terms with his life and circumstances of it. He’s also not the nicest guy in the world; there’s a very hard-boiled side to him. He has an insight into the inner workings of the world, and he just hates it."
Constantine arrives at Papa Midnight’s club, which hosts all the manner of half-breed, both good and evil, hoping to enlist the assistance of his old friend, but like anyone who once called Constantine ‘friend’ Midnight has been burned enough times to be suspicious.
"They had a bad deal in the past," explains Honsou, "but the only reason Midnight still talks to him is that deep down he likes him."
Lawrence watches his actors whip screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's sharp dialogue back and forth as clouds of bluish smoke hang in the air around them. "He’s been cursed with what other people would call a gift, for seeing things here on Earth for what they are and he has a strange duty to deal with those things," the director describes. "Ever since he’s been brought back to life, he’s been able to go to hell whenever he needs to and can see demons in their real form."
In "Constantine" hell takes on a more complimentary form and sheds off a bit of the fire and brimstone in favor of a bleak picture of a modern world in almost a post apocalyptic state. Not far from the real 101 freeway in Los Angeles the set designers construct their version of "Hell L.A." on the Warner lot and fashion a strip of freeway complete with burned-out cars and lurking demons which Constantine must battle his way through to find Angela’s sister.
If the Hell-hopping Constantine is three shades of gray, Rossdales' Balthazar - despite his neat white suit - is all black.
Bush frontman Rossdale drops his grunge look and guitar to transform into the urbane yet ruthless half-breed demon who’s primary pursuit is making everyone on earth’s life - especially Constantine’s - a living hell.
"Balthazar is in a way, John’s nemesis," says Rossdale as he retires to a far corner of the set for a cup of coffee. "It’s been said at some point we may have been friends, but through the passage of time we’ve become enemies. Balthazar takes pleasure in wreaking havoc and John takes displeasure in the havoc he wreaks."
While Dodson is a new addition to the Hellblazer mythos, much of the story line was plucked directly from the comic series and drew primarily upon characters and events from the "Original Sins" and "Dangerous Habits" storyarcs to paint an all-encompassing portrait of the wry image.
"There isn’t anyone like Constantine," says Lawrence. "I’ve always been attracted to these characters that have no choice in doing what they do, they just have to do it. Guys that are like Sisyphus, they have to roll that rock up the hill knowing it’s going to roll back down again. That’s what Constantine does."
He’s derisive, sneaky, sometimes ambivalent and largely un-heroic, so even if Constantine saves the world, can he win over the audience?
"There are certain sequences where he’s probably not the nicest guy in the world," admits Reeves, who enjoyed tapping into the character’s dark persona. "He makes a sacrifice in the end, so hopefully there’s something redeeming about him. Otherwise, why do it? But he’s a hard man to love."
As the L.A. skies begin to darken, and the bite of the breeze reminds us it’s December, Lawrence takes a break from a full day of shooting to sip a cup of chicken soup and chat about what his first feature film holds in store.
"The characters are a little odd and twisted, and the movie takes these really strange twists," explains the director. "I know a lot of the comic fans are sort of down on us because "Constantine" isn’t English and his hair isn’t blonde and his coat isn’t olive but this is not the standard studio film. We’re getting away with something. People are going to be blown away by what happens at the end of the movie."