He is not a very nice guy -- a reluctant hero..." --Keanu Reeves.
You've just turned 40 and your career-defining franchise is over. So you got to hell and back as cancerous comic-book hero Constantine. Keanu Reeves. No more Mr. Nice Guy...
You'd have thought that, having saved humanity once from total destruction, Keanu Reeves might be a little sick of the whole action-hero malarkey. Think again. In Constantine, the man who was Neo trades in his shades for a shirt-and-tie combo, fires up the fags, gets himself a few snazzy tattoos and takes a trip to Beelzebub's fiery abode to rid the Earth of demonkind once and for all.
As a result, Reeves is about to face off against his most dangerous adversary yet: the army of comic-book fans who ripped Ben Affleck apart for Daredevil and bashed Ang Lee for overhumanising The Hulk. By daring to play a comic character who doesn't exactly match the one on the page, Reeves is in danger of bringing the same ire down upon himself.
The comic book in question is Hellblazer. In the comics, John Constantine is blond, British and wears an olive-coloured trenchcoat. In the movie, Reeves is dark-haired and American. To make matters worse, his coat is black. "Just the fact that it's not in England, that he's not blonde... Some people may never get over that," insists Constantine director Francis Lawrence, a pop-promo veteran here making his feature debut. "But I think the heart of the character is there. I think we've maintained that."
"Yeah, I did ditch the accent," says Reeves with an unapologetic shrug, "He looks different to the comics, but I think he is still the John Constantine the Hellblazer fans love. He has the anger and wry sense of humour about the awfulness of the world. He's having to deal with that day-in and day-out, and what that's turning him into. He's kind of like a warrior in the middle of this world of shit and he's trying to escape hell."
While obviously not as famous a character as Batman, Spider-Man and the rest of the caped and cowled brigade, John Constantine has a fine pedigree and has been a cult favourite since his inception in the mid-80's. He's more anti-hero than hero, a tough, grizzled, chain-smoking bastard. "He's a supernatural hardboiled detective," says Lawrence. "He reminds me of the Sam Spades and characters from classic film noirs." To play him, Reeves says he took to browsing the back cataloque of Hellblazer stories for inspiration on the character's mannerisms and movement. But he didn't immerse himself too deeply in the comic-book world. "I read a few stories. I didn't study the whole canon, but there were things from his gestures and the tone of the writing that I was influenced by and took from. I wanted to be very true to the character with the feelings and sensibilities of the piece."
Lawrence on the other hand, is a self-confessed Hellblazer fan. So why the title change? "We changed it to Constantine because of Hellraiser. When you say Hellblazer, people say, 'Hellraiser? The movie with Pinhead?' That was the biggest reason for the change. As for setting it in L.A. and not London - that's pulled from various things, scenes taken from various graphic novels. Constantine, in my eyes, has always been universal. He's in London, he's in America, there are events that happen in Africa... It's not just a story that takes place in London. And L.A. is also a very classically noir city."
Still, nobody would make Batman Chinese or Superman Spanish. So wouldn't someone like Paul Bettany have been a better choice? After all, the character's creator had Sting in mind when he was writing the comic. And some fans called for the casting of James Marsters, who'd gotten a Constantine act down pat playing peroxide, chain-smoking Brit Spike on TV's Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
"I don't think we'll make everybody happy," Lawrence sighs. "There's just no way to do it. Hellblazer has a very small but hardcore fanbase. One thing is to build awareness with people who might not be aware of Hellblazer or that Constantine has something to do with Hellblazer. The other thing is to please the real, dedicated fans. They've been tough on the movie so far, and we want to show them we have not made Van Helsing. It's not a straight-up popcorn movie. I feel that the heart of the character is in it, and that's the most important thing."
And before fans kick up too much of a stink, remember the role might have gone to Nicolas Cage - an actor who has been associated with more comic-book properties (Ghost Rider, Superman) than any other and who was initially mentioned in connection with the lead role. The good news is that Constantine's producer, Lauren Shuler Donner, has a good track record in comic-to-movie adaptations, having steered X-Men to massive commercial success on the big screen without alienating the hardcore fanbase. Also, the Constantine script by Frank Cappello and Kevin Brodbin has sensibly borrowed from a number of the comic's best storylines - notably the 'Dangerous Habits' and 'Original Sins' runs, which brought a viseral edge and bloody horror to the character.
In Cappello's script, Reeves' Constantine cursed by his ability to see the half-breed angels and demons that walk the Earth in human form, is driven to take his own life to escape these tormenting visions. Resuscitated against his will, he is cast back to earth where he patrols the border between heaven and hell, hoping to earn his way to salvation by waging war on the earthbound minions of evel.
When policewoman Angela Dodson (played by Rachel Weisz, Keanu's Chain Reaction co-star) asks for his help in solving the mysterious suicide of her twin sister, their investigation uncovers a plan for demonic forces to literally put hell on Earth. In order to thwart this diabolical state of affairs, Constantine has to make a sacrifice and finally comes to terms with the Man Upstairs.
If that means scrapping mano-a-mano with demons and even squarting off against Satan himself (Fargo's Peter Stormare), then so be it. Factor in Constantine's lung cancer, several suicides and Tilda Swinton as the Angel Gabriel, and you'd be right in thinking this isn't your normal, fluffy, spandex-superhero slugfest. And if all that wasn't scary enough, Gavin Rossdale, singer with Brit-grungers Bush, also makes his movie debut.
"He is so much fun to play," says Reeves of Constantine. "He is sick and dying for a start. He's also not a very nice guy. He's a guy with a lot of anger and ambivalence - a reluctant hero. I like his fatalism and his humour - he's got a great sense of humour - but underneath all of that he has a kind of hopefulness. He can see things that is distressing to him, and he's already tried to get out once. Now he's trying to find his way into heaven, into the Lord's grace. This movie is about him trying to find a better life and his struggle with his own nature."
"I think Keanu has a lot of John Constantine in him, personally," says Lawrence. "Just the way he is in his everyday normal life, the sort of experiences he's had, and his view on the world and on people in general is really sort of similar. I mean, Keanu is kind of haunted guy and he's sort of elusive and mysterious. He's has some tragic things happen to him and I think he kind of lives that life a little bit." (Reeves was to have become a father in 1999 but his baby daughter was stillborn. In April 2001 his ex-partner, Jennifer Syme, died in a car crash.)
While Constantine doesn't have any superpowers of his own, he's not averse to using a little practical magic. He's no Harry Potter though. "He can't cast out demons, he has certain powers... It has a hard-boiled side to it," says Reeves. "But he's definitely less of a trickster and more of a magician. He's trying to buy his way into heaven. Is he doing what he's doing because he's altruistic, or is he doing what he's doing so he can hustle? You don't know; there's a mystery afoot."
In his occult dealings, Constantine is helped by Papa Midnite, played by Djimon Hounsou, "Midnite is a fascinating character," reveals the quietly-spoken West African. "He's a sort of witch-doctor and he's gone through so much with Constantine. He's kind of like the midway person - stuck between heaven and hell. He deals in icons and he's a bit of a thief. Well, let's just say he's a businessman."
For Hounsou, the role has ever greater resonance. "My connection to this story has more to do with coming from Africa and knowing the world of the occult and how the Western world views it. It was just amazing to see the connection and how real it is to me, personally, from stories I've heard back home."
Lawrence was eager to distance his movie from the endless characters currently swinging, flying and bashing their way into cinemas. By setting his Constantine in the City of Angels, he was aiming for a classic film noir feel. "My approach to this from the beginning was never to shoot it like a comic-book movie," he says. "I think that's kind of been done before. I mean, it was done very, very well with Tim Burton's original Batman. I don't think anybody's really topped that. Everybody's sort of done the Gotham City thing over and over again, wheter or not it's called Gotham City. Everybody has done all the dutched angles and all the bright colours and made things super-campy. What I wanted to do, and what I always loved about the comic, is root it in reality and in real places, I wanted to make it feel real and that seems to have worked. It's not all hyper-real. It's not super-stylised. It's kind of rooted in a gritty reality.
"What's interesting about this movie, and something I'm really proud of, too, is that it's not really genre-specific," he continues, "There are plenty of elements of horror and plenty of scares. It's creepy throughout, but it's not a horror movie or even a supernatural thriller. It's not four kids in a van going off and getting chopped up by an axe murderer. It's not just fantasy either. It's kind of a weird blend of all these things."
Having spent three years of his life Down Under shooting the Matrix trilogy, Reeves relished filming Constantine back in L.A. But he hasn't completely shed the Neo character and was stung by the fierce criticism that was levelled at both Reloaded and Revolutions. "I think that they were embraced differently," he says. "I mean, if you remember way back in '99 when the first Matrix came out, it took a while to take off. It was not a critically acclaimed film; it was an underground cult film that gradually became popular. I think that Reloaded and Revolutions kind of continue on in that tradition. Critically they were not embraced. But my experience has been that if you spend some time with the films, you kind of feel differently. I mean, if you didn't get it or if you didn't feel like you enjoyed it, sometimes that experience can change. I think that they're wonderful films and I'll speak about them until I croak."
After five years of deflecting the Matrix typecasting with a scattering of genre pics and breezy rom-coms (Sweet November, Something's Gotta Give), it feels like Reeves is finding his second wind, with Act Two of his movie career beginning at 40. With all that jumping away from slo-mo explosions out of his system, he's moving on to brooding leads - not so buff and flailing, but still loaded with action menace.
Next up he's the schizo, drug-addled narc in Richard Linklater's adap of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, followed by a corruption-exploding cop in early '90s L.A. in Spike Lee's version of James Ellroy's The Night Watchman. Having absorbed years of critical opprobium (a Google search of 'Keanu Reeves' and 'bad actor' turns up 7,000 mathces), he seems set to both challenge himself and prove his acting chops in the same way a certain Mr. Cruise did a decade or so ago. When you consider that Lawrence was the director who turned pretty-boy Justin Timberlake into a sleazy stalker in his 'Cry Me A River' music video, Reeves could be in the right hands for a reinvention.
Still, the diminishing returns of The Matrix hasn't put him off the idea of straight-up sequels, "There is talk of another Constantine and that might happen," he says. "If we're fortunate enough and it all comes together, I'll be really happy to do another one. Hopefully, we've made a good film, but I doubt it'll be turned into a Matrix-like franchise with branded lunchboxes and all..."
Constantine is released on 18 March [UK] and will be reviewed in the next issue of Total Film.
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The comic-book origins of Keanu's ultimate anti-hero. Captain America he ain't...
John Constantine first appeared in 1985 in a Louisiana bayou in Saga Of The Swamp Thing issue 37. Originally introduced as a background character by artists Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch because, so comic lore tells it, they wanted to draw a lookalike for ex-Police frontman Sting, Constantine became a fully-fledged character under the stewardship of writer Alan [Watchmen] Moore.
John Constantine is the comic world's number one bastard. A cynical, self-serving, chain-smoking, hard-drinking mage, Constantine's disreputable CV also includes con artist, womaniser and punk rocker. Like Batman, Constantine has no superpowers to speak of. He relies instead on his caustic wit, crafty ways and a sprinkling of magic.
In 1987 DC Comics gave Constantine his own series. Initially written by Jamie Delano, Hellblazer was originally going to be called Hellraiser, but the title was changed to avoid confusion with the Clive Barker film and short-lived comic series of the same neme.
Since its inception, the ongoing Hellblazer monthly has always had a notable British slant, with the majority of issues written by folks from this side of the Atlantic: Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis and Mike Carey.
Issue 28 ("Hold Me") by Neil Gaiman (writer) and Dave McKean (artist). It's valued at around $20 on the back issue market but is also available in Gaiman's collection Midnight Days.
Constantine has popped up in a number of other titles including Sandman, Shade, The Changing Man, New Teen Titans and The Books of Magic.
Ellis resigned as Hellblazer writer in 1999 when DC refused to publish his infamous 'Shoot' storyline which concerned US high-school shootings. Bootleg versions of the issue (which was to be no. 141) can be found online. In case you're interested.