In the years between Keanu Reeves’ two biggest franchises (The Matrix and John Wick), the A-lister furthered his status as a Hollywood leading man in over a dozen different projects. Hardly any of them clicked.
There are exceptions. The 2006 rotoscope thriller A Scanner Darkly, directed by Richard Linklater, is still a worthwhile experience, and The Lake House released that same year stands out in retrospect as one of Reeves’ only successful turns at sappy romantic dramas.
But one aggressively mediocre movie led by Reeves — cut from the cloth of comic book intellectual property but crafted at a time when superhero movies were still movies first — is only getting more interesting after 17 years. It isn’t the most exciting action movie nor is it the scariest horror movie, but in its attempts to be both, it magically finds its own artistic atmosphere.
We’re talking, of course, about Constantine. Here’s why you need to stream this movie while you still can — and what you should know first.
In Constantine (which was just greenlit for a sequel), Reeves stars as John Constantine, a chain-smoking exorcist cursed with the ability to communicate and perceive angels and demons in their true forms. Verbalized in the film is Constantine’s trauma from discovering this power in his youth — his attempted suicide has marked him for damnation. It doesn’t help that his chain-smoking means he’s walking to an early grave.
Constantine makes contact with Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), an L.A. police detective and struggling alcoholic who’s convinced the death of her mentally ill sister wasn’t suicide but a murder. Angela consults Constantine for help, only for the two of them to uncover a supernatural plot by Hell to take over Earth.
One part superhero movie, one part demonic horror, and one part noir thriller, Constantine takes all of the best parts of its Hellblazer comics source material while ditching some of its most defining features. Constantine is, assertively, British (he hails from Liverpool), as a creation of Alan Moore during his run on DC’s Swamp Thing. In the same way that Superman’s humble kindness is rooted in his midwestern upbringing so too does Constantine’s abrasive personality reflect the rainy, grungy alleys of Thatcher-era England.
Reeves’ Americanized Constantine is a prime example of a Hollywood-ization of a story, but it’s the rare instance where the machinery still works. With Reeves speaking in his natural accent and placing him in Los Angeles (or “Angel City”), Constantine sacrifices so much of the geographical specificity that defines John Constantine’s being.
Miraculously, Constantine still feels like Hellblazer in spirit. The film’s predominant American-ness doesn’t get in the way of sharing the same bleak atmosphere of a world rotting from within. The movie may take place in Los Angeles, or a town like it, but its chief physical settings are those of mundane, fluorescent-lit hospital wings, barely-kept apartments, and dingy convenience stores. These physical settings extend to Constantine himself, whose white oxford shirt and black tie betray his inherent fatalism and self-destructive behaviors (he simply cannot stop smoking) that feels like both a curse and an addiction.
Reeves himself shoulders the weight of whatever makes Constantine a dark noir emblematic of the 2000s. His stoic delivery and hushed voice don’t make him quite the charismatic conman John Constantine is supposed to be, but Reeves naturally contains a lot of quiet sadness that makes it too easy to feel for him. It’s little wonder audiences have spent decades swooning over him. Combine this with the flowing black knee-length coat of a gritty detective, and what you have is a superhero figure fundamentally unlike others who fly across the cinema screen.
Constantine is far from perfect. It’s too mired in its world-building and, after so many pages pass in its inert script, stops making sense completely. It’s also painfully obvious how much the producers insisted on Constantine becoming cinema’s next dark action hero — bear witness to him crafting a shotgun out of crucifixes — even if J.C. simply isn’t built that way. The short-lived NBC series from 2014 brought forth a more accurate Constantine, both in terms of performance (with British actor Matt Ryan) and in how the character behaves, moves, and operates. But neither his solo TV series nor the frenzied “Arrowverse” franchise ever properly adhered to the tone of the Hellblazer comics like Lawrence’s picture.
17 years later, it’s not too late for Constantine to enjoy a resurrection. Admiration has only swelled since the movie opened in 2005, both due to Reeves’ involvement — plus a robust ensemble that includes Tilda Swinton, Djimon Honsou, a pre-Transformers Shia LaBeouf, Bush lead singer Gavin Rossdale, and even Peter Stormare — and its grim tone unusual to modern superhero blockbusters.
Constantine may not be like other superheroes, but he’s always done his best work in the shadows.
Constantine is streaming now on Netflix until September 30.