Keanu Reeves promises that even without a British accent, his Constantine will make us go "Whoa".
by Patrick Lee
Hollywood may be about to $@#! up yet another comic-book adaptation. Check out the upcoming movie Constantine, based on the cult DC/Vertigo graphic novel series Hellblazer, about a supernatural detective wracked with cancer, facing death and trying to find a way to elude the forces of hell, who are coming to collect his soul.
The movie's main story is based on Irish writer Garth Ennis' Hellblazer novel, Dangerous Habits, which is set in London. The novel's hero, John Constantine, is a tall, blond, chain-smoking, trench-coated Brit who uses words like "nutter" and "bloke" and "bollocks." The character was reportedly modeled on British rock star Sting. [Hellblazer was originally created in 1985 by legendary U.K. comic writer Alan Moore and molded into one of Vertigo's longest-running series by writer Jamie Delano.]
So when Warner Brothers wanted to turn the book into a movie, whom did it cast to play Constantine?
Reeves will play Constantine as a dark-haired, black-clad American. And that's not all. The setting was changed to Los Angeles from London. A new character, police detective Angela Dodson, was added [played by The Mummy's Rachel Weisz, teaming up with Reeves for the first time since their 1996 action movie Chain Reaction]. Even the title was changed, to avoid confusion with the Hellraiser series of films.
"The decision to make [it] American was sort of the studio's decision," producer Lauren Shuler Donner admits. "If we had done the English version I would have wanted Paul Bettany. Wouldn't he be perfect?"
But don't try to suggest to star Reeves that this is a big deal. "I think that's about the only change we've made," Reeves said in an interview during a break in filming at the cemetery in Compton, Calif., last December. The filmmakers, including first-time director Francis Lawrence, considered the changes carefully, he added. "We spoke about it, but it seemed in terms of the platform that we were using, which became Los Angeles - the world in terms of heaven, hell and Los Angeles - seemed to be attractive and make sense. And we're kind of doing a hard-boiled kind of take on the piece. So we kind of went this way instead of a more gothic aspect."
Not everyone is happy with the wholesale changes. U.K.-based comic writer and critic Warren Ellis read an early script for the movie, and posted this rant: "I've read the script. I apologize to the writers involved, who I'm sure worked very hard, but it's bloody awful. It's possible things got fixed on the set. I know there seemed to be an intent to do that. But in the script John Constantine is now a man with the [super]power to go to hell. So long as his feet are immersed in a bucket of water. Seriously. I don't think it would have killed them to put 'adapted from the worlds of Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis' on the script jacket, either, since it's a Frankensteinian stitch-together of their runs on the book."
American author Neil Gaiman, who is a friend of Moore's, posted in his own blog: "As far as I know, from having spoken to him, Alan's view on Constantine itself is the same as his view on From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen [also based on Moore works], which is that he'll probably rent the DVD one day, you never know, hell might freeze over, and that the important work is the comic. The main difference here being that the film is, from what I understand, mostly based on the Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano issues of the Hellblazer coming, [And, for whatever remains of the record, Alan hasn't seen anything of Constantine: no scripts, no nothing.]"
Still, Reeves defends the movie. "It's serious and, hopefully, funny at the same time," he says. "Again, going back to that hard-boiled motif. Constantine in this film is in hospital, and he finds out he's dying of lung cancer, lights a cigarette up inside the doctor's office. She says, "That's a good idea," He gets into an elevator and this character comes by, and the elevator door's closing, and the person says, 'Going down?' And he says, 'Not if I can help it.' The next scene is, he's in bed with a half-breed demon, drinking whiskey with scratches on his back and the scene ends with her tail kind of swishing underneath the sheets, laughing, going 'Lung cancer? Hah. That's funny, John.' So hopefully, we have the spirit of... I call it the Constantinian factor. I'm always asking, 'Is that Constantinian enough?' I think I need more Constantine in my Constantine."
Director Lawrence, who came onto the project after original director Tarsem Singh [The Cell] dropped out in an acrimonious creative dispute, also defends his take on the material, from a script by Akiva Goldsman.
"What's interesting about this movie, and what I'm really proud of, too, is that it's not really genre-specific," he says, "It's not a supernatural thriller. It's not a horror film. It's not four kids in a van going off and getting chopped up by an ax murderer. It's not just fantasy. It's a weird blend of all these things."
And he defends Reeves' casting.
"I think Keanu actually has a lot of John Constantine in him, personally," Lawrence says, "I don't think he's really portrayed anything like John Constantine before, but just the way he is in his everyday normal life and the sort of experiences he's had and his view on the world and on people is really sort of similar."
"Well, I don't want to get into anything sort of personal, but I mean, Keanu is kind of a haunted guy, and he's sort of elusive, and he's kind of mysterious," Lawrence says. "He's had some sort of tragic things happen to him, and I think sort of kind of lives that life a little bit. He's also, I would say, a little self-destructive, which I think Constantine is, you know?"
In the movie, as in the comic, Constantine is a mage, a private detective, a con artist and a sometime thief whose past is coming back to haunt him, quite literally. Weisz plays Dodson, a skeptical cop investigating the death of her twin sister, Isabel [also played by Weisz]. Meanwhile, Constantine must contend with supernatural forces set in motion by the inadvertent discovery of the Spear of Longinus - the Roman weapon that pierced the side of Christ on the cross - which has fallen into the hands of a poor scavenger [Jasse Ramirez]
For all of its supernatural elements - demons, ghosts, supernatural visitations - the comic has a gritty, contemporary, streetwise feel.
But the film has chosen a more stylized, norish approached. On a day of filming in Los Angeles last winter, the movie sets up camp at the Angeles Abbey Memorial Park in Compton, Calif. Inside the Moorish-flavoured main building at the cemetery, filmmakers have constructed a set representing the reliquary storehouse of Papa Midnite, Constantine's voodoo sorcerer pal [played in pimp-daddy splendor by Gladiator star Djimon Hounsou]. This day, Constantine visits Midnite's underground chamber to take a ride in the original electric chair from Sing Sing, now in Midnite's possession. Constantine needs the chair to make a brief visit to hell to get answers to a mystery having to do with this his ultimate fate.
The set is a long hallway lined with supernatural artifacts: a Nazi banner from Nuremberg, the True Cross, Egyptian bas-reliefs, coffins, statues, furniture, paintings, relics, a steel drum with a biohazard warning, Hounsou is resplendent in a velvet coast, corduroy suit, porkpie hat and embroidered cowboy boots. Reeves is dressed in a black suit, white shirt and skinny black tie, not unlike Thomas Anderson, the alter ego of his Matrix persona, Neo.
But Reeves balks at comparisons between the two character. In the scene being shot today, Constantine is supposed to utter a "Whoa!" upon entering Midnite's reliquary room - an homage to Neo. That line quickly gets dropped during filming.
And the film's humor is evident in the scene: As Constantine follows Midnite into the he chamber, he notices a new-complete set of calendar-girl drinking glasses on a brassy tray. "Full set?" Constantine asks. "No," Midnite answers. "No Miss October. I've tried eBay. All the stores. No luck."
Reeves says that he was attracted to the role in part because of its mixture of cynical humour and dark emotion. "He's not the nicest guy all the time," Reeves says. "I don't know if he's immoral. But it's something that he's negotiating with."
Reeves adds: "I really love the guy. I love his anger, and I loved his wry sense of humour about the awfulness of the world and having to deal with [that] day-in and day-out and what that's kind of turned him into. Djimon's playing Midnite, and we're like warriors in this world of shit, just trying to deal with it, and I like that."
Hounsou says that acting with Reeves has been exciting. "He's done so much, and this time, on this picture, working with him firsthand, it's quite a nice surprise," he says. "I realise how actually he's a very talented man, and... he's so anal about the work. The guy has received some criticism, good and bad, but working with him, you have a great affinity for the kind of generosity that he has with the work and with people that [are a] part of this picture. He definately is a very simple man and somewhat maybe misunderstood, because he's just very reclusive, very private."
Lawrence says that Reeves fits the role of the haunted detective, British or not. "What I think first attracted me to the project was just the character himself: not the fact that he was English, not the fact that he had blond hair and not the fact that he wore an olive-coloured trench coat. It was sort of what made him who he was. And I think we've maintained that."
What is that, exactly?
"I think it's the whole idea of an antihero," Lawrence says, "This guy that sort of understands the world to [be a] play that normal people don't know exists. I think that he's sort of a supernatural, hard-boiled detective. He reminds me of the Sam Spades and characters from the classic film noirs. ... One of the ideas for this was we brought it to Los Angeles, ... considered a classic city for noir."
Will die-hard Hellblazer fans ultimately come around for Constantine? "I don't think we'll make everybody happy," Lawrence says. "There's just no way to do it. When I first came on this movie, it was an interesting script, and it's a really different script and has an interesting tone, a different tone, and it goes to weird places, this story. That was really interesting to me, and it's got all these great layers. You know what? Probably just the fact that he doesn't speak with an English accent, that he's not blond: That's going to piss people off. It just is. And some people just won't get over that. But I think the heart of the character is there. I just want to make sure that gets conveyed."
Reeves is more philosophical. "Ultimately there's a line in it where Constantine says, 'God has a plan for all of us. I had to die twice just to figure that out. Some people like it. Some people don't.'"