15 Years Later, We Owe Constantine An Apology

We look back at the comic book-based Keanu Reeves vehicle that remains a sentimental cult favorite a decade and a half after its release.

by | February 18, 2020 | Comments

From epic TV crossovers like Crisis on Infinite Earths to prestige TV dramas like Watchmen and the groundbreaking and record-breaking success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s no denying the huge pop culture appeal of comic books and superheroes. But just a few years ago, things were different. Back in the early 2000s, superhero movies were seen as big risks, and quite a few of them flopped.  Coming off the failure of Catwoman and just a few months before Christopher Nolan rebooted Batman and changed the character forever with Batman Begins, Francis Lawrence made his directorial debut with a supernatural noir-thriller adaptation, Constantine.

Though some fans never forgave the movie for changing the look and sound of John Constantine from a distinctly English, blonde practitioner of the dark arts into a jet black-haired, very American Keanu Reeves, the film has sparked renewed interest in recent years, partially thanks to a resurgence of Reeves’ career — a Keanussance, if you will — and the increased popularity of a genre whose fans have learned to appreciate films that attempt to do something different with their source material. For its 15th anniversary, we clutch our crucifixes and walk down the path to Hell as we explore why Constantine not only deserves our attention, but also, from some of us, our apologies.

It’s A Noir Thriller in Addition to a Comic Book Movie

Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

The world of Constantine is one in the middle of a Cold War between two superpowers. Only, it’s not a war between two countries, but one between the literal forces of Heaven and Hell, with Earth stuck in the middle. Demons and angels can’t cross over to our plane, but “half-breeds” use humans as “finger puppets,” influencing them to do their bidding in a battle for their souls. Like a good detective story, there’s a plot in place that could end the war in disaster, and it’s only our gritty, cynical, jaded Philip Marlowe-esque protagonist who can stop the conspiracy before it brings about the end of the world. Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a man cursed with the ability to see half-breeds and other supernatural creatures, and when he crosses paths with a detective (Rachel Weisz) whose twin sister (also Weisz) committed suicide, they find themselves in the crosshairs of both demons and angels.

Though this slow-burn, mystery-focused approach didn’t connect with some fans of the comic book, it allowed for a unique film experience, as Constantine offers a religious twist on the detective story. The God of Constantine is a distant, cold, reserved and calculating figure, a constant foil to our protagonist who guides him along to find the clues, eventually saves his soul, and gives him another assignment. In other words, God Himself plays something of a surrogate femme fatale., whose unseen presence is nevertheless felt throughout the film.

The Supporting Cast Is Excellent

Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

A detective noir story is only as good as its supporting cast, and Constantine boasts an impressive ensemble on par with the blockbuster superhero movies of today. When the film begins, we meet Pruitt Taylor Vince (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Devil’s Candy) as Father Hennesy, a priest driven to drink by visions of demons, and a friend to Constantine. Shia LaBeouf plays Constantine’s young driver and eager apprentice, and Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond, Shazam!) is a sinister former witch doctor now managing a nightclub that serves as a neutral meeting ground for the forces of both Heaven and Hell. Each of them infuses the film with a grounded performance that offers an interesting contrast to the film’s more fantastical plot.

Then there’s the villains. The moment we first see Constantine walk into a church, bypass the priest, and address a mysterious figure standing by the fire as “Gabriel,” we know this is someone worth paying attention to. In one of the most interesting performances of her career, Tilda Swinton plays the archangel Gabriel as an androgynous and slightly psychotic figure who speaks in a calm, gentle voice befitting someone from a higher plane of existence. Arguably the first of her more otherworldly performances, Gabriel finds Swinton striking a perfect balance between being threatening and being a welcoming presence. And then there’s Satan himself. Early in the film Constantine is told that he is the only soul Satan will come up to collect in person, so when the film finally introduces us to the Morning Star in the form of Peter Stormare (American Gods, John Wick: Chapter 2), it’s the ace up the film’s sleeve. Stormare’s Lucifer doesn’t have horns or a pitchfork, but he shows up in a pristine white suit with boiling tar dripping from his bare feet. He taunts Constantine with a surprising gentility and odd mannerisms, fully embodying the charmer capable of convincing men to sell their souls in exchange for favors. It’s a brief role, but it’s instantly memorable.

Keanu Reeves Plays John Constantine as a Proto-John Wick

Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

John Wick is considered to be the beginning of Keanu Reeves’ recent resurgence, as the tale of an assassin-for-hire going back to work following the murder of his dog became a career-redefining moment. The thing is, fans of Constantine had already seen a preview of Reeves’ performance way back in 2005.

A hard-drinking, chain-smoking freelance exorcist, Constantine has been working for so long that his name is alternately feared and hated across Heaven and all rings of Hell. Reeves portrays Constantine as the quintessential noir anti-hero, a demon-fighting Philip Marlowe. He mutters, acts like a smartass, and generally scoffs at his existence, for he has seen too much. Yet Reeves’ Constantine never seems disturbed by what he sees; he approaches the shenanigans of the plot as if it were just another day at the office. Sound familiar? Constantine is a man who absolutely hates how good he is at his job, but he does it for personal — and arguably selfish — reasons, whether it’s revenge or a shot at ascending to Heaven when he dies. And of course, Constantine is as big a badass as John Wick, capable of conning both God and the Devil into saving his life.

It Offers a Unique Vision of Hell

Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

A movie about Hell has to show us what it actually looks like at some point, and Constantine gives us one of the best and most unique visions of the underworld. Instead of a dark void or a fiery, cavernous land, Francis Lawrence had something else entirely in mind. In an interview with, Lawrence said that he wanted Hell to be a sort of parallel universe, replicating our world with the same buildings and streets as the Los Angeles of the film, except in a desolated nuclear wasteland. Indeed, Lawrence goes on to talk about looking at nuclear test films from the ‘40s and wanting Hell to look like an eternal nuclear blast site where nothing explodes because time is endless there.

Additionally, Constantine is filled with demons, for obvious reasons. The film shows a series of disturbing zombie-like creatures that are the stuff of nightmares, all brainless because Lawrence wanted the demons to be entities without agency, acting on instinct. This is where the film’s horror inspirations really shine, as Constantine faces the decaying spawns of hell and a monster made out of hundreds of bugs. It comes as no surprise that Lawrence would go on to direct I Am Legend, which also features zombie-like creatures, just a couple of years later.

Constantine didn’t leave the biggest mark on the history of comic book-inspired cinema, but especially at a time when those films tend to follow a standard formula, we look toward style and unique visions more than ever. In that regard, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more intriguing take on the comic book horror story than the tale of the freelance exorcist, John Constantine.

Constantine was released on February 18, 2005.


Constantine (2005)

Adjusted Score: 53.782%
Critics Consensus: Despite solid production values and an intriguing premise, Constantine lacks the focus of another spiritual shoot-em-up: The Matrix.
Synopsis: An ordinary man with an extraordinary gift must save the planet from evil in this action-packed fantasy. Unknown to most... [More]
Directed By: Francis Lawrence

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

Vudu Awards Tour YA Anna Paquin Box Office Fantasy unscripted MSNBC Tubi WGN Grammys Paramount Network Teen Calendar cults tv talk PaleyFest historical drama WarnerMedia Countdown National Geographic screenings Emmy Nominations reviews Heroines Valentine's Day Interview IFC Films Baby Yoda Spike movies TCA 2017 criterion TNT Writers Guild of America 2019 Food Network OWN The Purge Ovation mutant documentary Cosplay Dark Horse Comics Sneak Peek Freeform hist GLAAD animated zombie independent Mindy Kaling DC Universe Lifetime critics south america OneApp dramedy Star Trek Schedule composers Rom-Com Premiere Dates Netflix Christmas movies justice league dragons versus asian-american Emmys Reality Competition Fall TV USA crime thriller Disney Channel scary movies joker Tumblr satire Hear Us Out BET Awards Ghostbusters revenge Ellie Kemper golden globes cancelled television anime Starz anthology emmy awards USA Network sports First Reviews Sundance canceled TV shows Travel Channel Rocketman comic space Thanksgiving based on movie Britbox hispanic aliens Mudbound Trivia cinemax Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Black History Month Rock adventure ABC Family TIFF casting Amazon Prime Video Women's History Month Mary Poppins Returns medical drama Warner Bros. halloween dogs Best and Worst Chernobyl spanish language technology Black Mirror comics Hallmark Christmas movies Winners richard e. Grant ITV psycho travel name the review rotten movies we love book Brie Larson DC Comics a nightmare on elm street mockumentary 2017 cancelled TV series BBC One stoner Funimation indie Avengers disaster RT History CNN cartoon adaptation Stephen King singing competition Extras Summer nbcuniversal Comics on TV Lifetime Christmas movies video on demand batman Trailer Pet Sematary chucky Hallmark crossover Acorn TV spain Musical cooking Television Academy indiana jones Crunchyroll finale Universal Film Set visit BET teaser Comedy Pixar A24 docudrama FXX Netflix Pop natural history Amazon Studios Tomatazos Arrowverse Action elevated horror The Arrangement VH1 45 slashers 2015 Amazon Prime sitcom series science fiction LGBT Kids & Family BBC America Creative Arts Emmys renewed TV shows APB Polls and Games Year in Review Logo Infographic crime drama Adult Swim Country CBS All Access romantic comedy discovery Disney+ Disney Plus Certified Fresh HBO Max FOX sag awards video Elton John Discovery Channel spinoff Lionsgate Lucasfilm Spectrum Originals comedies PlayStation Character Guide Marathons DC streaming service miniseries American Society of Cinematographers biography E3 documentaries TruTV movie Quiz Oscars talk show war Marvel Television BBC Holidays christmas movies dceu Western Trophy Talk Biopics E! Music Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Apple TV VICE franchise sequel See It Skip It Drama Opinion Watching Series what to watch news harry potter blockbuster IFC TV Land Pride Month Columbia Pictures 20th Century Fox Awards dc SundanceTV 2016 Peacock all-time Nickelodeon festivals thriller parents Disney streaming service Crackle Family Sundance Now Esquire Nominations Turner Classic Movies mission: impossible award winner cancelled Star Wars YouTube Premium Cannes A&E latino Super Bowl Hulu Mary poppins breaking bad directors romance NYCC boxoffice Reality The Walking Dead game of thrones RT21 twilight cops canceled period drama jamie lee curtis CW Seed YouTube Red FX on Hulu child's play Binge Guide Nat Geo spy thriller 007 police drama best Mystery screen actors guild Cartoon Network Paramount cats TCA spider-man Showtime Animation die hard Apple TV+ Shudder vampires Television Critics Association werewolf ESPN Musicals Winter TV MCU 2018 ABC GIFs YouTube AMC comiccon Walt Disney Pictures cancelled TV shows Sony Pictures San Diego Comic-Con Election true crime witnail TCA Awards ratings Masterpiece TV renewals CBS SDCC SXSW politics President Video Games supernatural Fox News toy story streaming CMT Shondaland binge X-Men Film Festival psychological thriller transformers television Comedy Central 21st Century Fox kids Endgame TBS PBS dark quibi Amazon Syfy strong female leads Turner TLC Superheroe Sundance TV TCM 24 frames 4/20 DGA Classic Film Marvel diversity 2020 DirecTV Podcast Epix stand-up comedy Toys Photos BAFTA HBO Go zombies TCA Winter 2020 Pirates films doctor who Sci-Fi game show Bravo Disney Red Carpet First Look FX Tarantino Christmas History HBO free movies Song of Ice and Fire foreign 71st Emmy Awards social media theme song nature ghosts reboot crime Mary Tyler Moore VOD New York Comic Con universal monsters Comic Book Academy Awards serial killer robots Disney Plus El Rey Superheroes blaxploitation NBC Horror Captain marvel The CW green book Martial Arts political drama GoT Marvel Studios LGBTQ Pop TV Holiday concert The Witch facebook Spring TV children's TV cars Rocky MTV zero dark thirty Apple TV Plus