Angels and demons have been fighting each other since the beginning of time, at least if you believe what the Bible says. That battle has been the topic of art, books, and eventually film, with artists depicting bloody wars of shining angels and fiery demons fighting over the souls of humanity. But this eternal struggle has needed an update for a while now; we’ve seen enough of angels and demons fighting on medieval battlefields, or in the minds of vulnerable young girls. Enter the 2005 film, Constantine.
John Constantine (Keanu Reeves, John Wick) is a demon-fighting cynic with lung cancer and a bad attitude. He is able to see and talk to angels and demons, and performs exorcisms to try to gain salvation. He then is enlisted to help a police detective, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy) discover the real reason why her twin sister committed suicide. In investigating her death, Constantine and Angela discover a much bigger and more sinister plot involving scheming angels, smooth-talking demons, and the blood of Jesus.
“[Constantine showcases] that horror comics are full of horrifically fun potential.”
Importantly, Constantine is a comic book figure, seen first in the series, Swamp Thing, then given his own series titled Hellblazer, both published by DC Comics. Constantine enters a very small pantheon of horror comic adaptations that absolutely rip, to put it professionally. This film, alongside Blade, 30 Days of Night, and Hellboy, showcase that horror comics are full of horrifically fun potential. If comic book adaptations are going to be a part of the zeitgeist, why not focus more on the horror genre, which is full of terrifying creativity?
There’s a lot that makes Constantine such an entertaining watch. But I’ve narrowed it down to five aspects that, after 15 years, explain why Constantine continues to be a fascinating portrayal of the dynamics of Heaven and Hell.
Constantine is embroiled in the world of angelic and demonic politics, a never-ending fight for control where humans are pawns. There is a strict set of rules that are supposed to be followed very closely, which indicates a world full of lore that begs to be investigated. Half-breeds must conceal their identities at all times unless they are in a neutral setting, which in Constantine is Papa Midnite’s (Djimon Hounsou, Lost) bar. Half-demons and half-angels walk the Earth concealed as investment bankers and company executives (demons) or Good Samaritans (angels). While it is rather cliche, especially if you think back to Reeves’s past role in The Devil’s Advocate, the broader story and lore prevent the film from wandering into redundancy. Instead of focusing on just one bad rich man or one good person, the narrative is about the larger order of things.
But obviously that is no longer happening, as is revealed in the opening exorcism. A demon possesses a young girl and is trying to burst onto Earth, an action that is strictly prohibited. Humans are being killed, boundaries are being crossed, and holy relics are being thrown around like nothing. The holy order, so to speak, is being destroyed in the name of angelic boredom. Previous films about the demonic are often
The political structure of Constantine’s world is only a subset of the greater lore. This lore involves the blood of Jesus, a spear, Nazis, and obviously Hell. There are special processes and rituals, and, again, roles that people must play to keep order. Constantine tries to earn his way to heaven, but cannot find a loophole in the rather strict system of who is granted access to where. Demons stay in Hell, angels stay in Heaven, and half-breeds occupy the space between.
Then there is a prophecy in the Satanic Bible that predicts that Lucifer’s son will take over Earth as his own kingdom. But, there are specific steps that must be taken and roles that must be filled, such as the psychic which in this case is Angela. Sure, it may be confusing, but for someone like me who adores a complex and rich world, this is everything I’m looking for. This is not just us coming in from the beginning to the end of a neatly-wrapped-up story. We are entering a world in media res and should soak up as much as possible.
And of course, there are the weapons: screech beetles from Amityville, dragon’s breath, holy water from the River Jordan, the list goes on. While it’s a brief scene, the laundry list hints at a wider world where holy weapons are bought and sold as easily as groceries.
Demons have taken on countless forms in horror media, with artists taking their own liberties in portraying the servants of Hell. In Constantine, the soldier demons that populate the hell, the lowest level of the demonic, are twisted humanoids missing the top of their heads. They are gnarled versions of the human body, missing their brains and therefore operating solely on the orders of their masters. They are portrayed as truly mindless beings with only an evil purpose.
The more intelligent and devious half-demons are also repulsive. They had their green oozing skin with human flesh suits, but it is merely a veneer to appear normal. Just under the surface is a twisted creature who is bent on fulfilling their own selfish desires.
Director Francis Lawrence is known for directing music videos for artists such as J. Lo, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and more, so there’s no denying his style. He brought that style in spades to Constantine, especially in shooting the various death sequences. These death sequences are unique, especially since quite a few of them are suicides. Each death, homicide or suicide, highlights the cruelty of these higher beings, as well as the desperation of Constantine to try and achieve truth. Suicide in this film is two-sided: a damnable offense as well as a method to travel to Hell. Something so terrible and heartbreaking becomes weaponized, a way to turn the damned narrative into something that could be productive.
Perhaps the most harrowing death is that of Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince, The Devil’s Candy). The alcoholic priest has the ability to speak to the dead, which is why he drinks; he wants to silence the voices. However, at the request of Constantine, he listens to the voices and discovers something terrible. So he rushes to a convenience store for liquor, a way to drape a blanket of peace over his troubled mind. But, something is wrong: every time he drinks, nothing comes out. He begins ransacking the store, smashing bottles and trying desperately to drink something. Eventually, he drinks himself to death, the casualty of a half-demon’s illusion.
Supporting all of this lore is a badass cast that sells what could be considered rather ludicrous subject matter. It could veer into the cheesy and melodramatic, but with a banger cast, Constantine is the right amount of scary, enthralling, and entertaining. Reeves as the titular Constantine is, of course, an inspired choice. Reeves is an action star and his deadpan delivery of every line, especially the ones about angelic order, makes them strangely convincing. The foil to Constantine’s calm and collected nature is Weisz as Angela, a level-headed cop who serves as the audience proxy. She yells in disbelief with each revelation of a new horrifying creature. Then, on the side, there is Shia LaBeouf’s (Honey Boy) Chas, the energetic and excited sidekick who just wants to be like Constantine. He brings energy and enthusiasm to an otherwise rather dark film.
Then, there is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the androgynous Gabriel and Peter Stormare (Castlevania) as the charismatic Lucifer, two brilliant character actors who elevate Constantine to another level. They chew up the scenery in their brief appearances, languishing in their roles as well-known figures with a special twist. The almighty Gabriel is more sinister than a warrior of God, and Lucifer is much more empathetic. Swinton and Stormare embody their characters’ complexities to create new versions of all-too-familiar figures.