Review: Constantine — The TV Series Pilot

 

140509_2781062_Constantine_Official_Trailer

 

 

Oooh, where to start? Okay — first, let me introduce John Constantine. He’s a DC character (the same imprint which stables Batman, Superman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman and a bunch of other underpants-wearing types) created originally by Alan Moore as a support figure during Moore’s critically-acclaimed run on the Swamp Thing title. Constantine is a blond English occultist with limited power but tremendous cunning and confidence, and a real problem with authority.

Constantine is also my favourite-ever DC character, for a variety of reasons. I really got to like him when Garth Ennis was writing the series (Constantine got spun off from Swamp Thing into the Vertigo Comics title “Hellblazer”) but other writers including Warren Ellis also turned in some excellent work on the book.

There was always a lot to appreciate about the Constantine/Hellblazer comics. Ennis did a lot of his work in the latter days of the late, not-so-fucking-lamented Maggie Thatcher, and there’s a great deal of sharp, vicious social commentary in the stories. Constantine’s fuck-you attitude towards Heaven and Hell alike also spilled over into his approach to merely mortal authorities. Constantine also occasionally embodied Ennis’ famously disrespectful attitude to conventional superheroes — those buffoons in spandex.

Above and beyond such things, however, I appreciated a beautifully depicted character. Constantine isn’t super-powerful, but he’s a confident, cunning son-of-a-bitch and in the hands of a good writer you could never be sure if the character was bluffing or whether he really did have the power to take down whatever Dread Occult Forces he happened to be confronting at the time. Constantine is also a deeply flawed character: arrogant, angry, bitter, with a nasty habit of using up his friends in a thoroughly fatal way. But of course, you could only like a character of such type if he came with other qualities: courage, loyalty, fierce intelligence, a wonderfully bleak sense of humour, and a deep streak of compassion and empathy.

Some years ago, a very badly informed US film company made a hideous attempt to bring Constantine to the screen. The movie was called “Constantine”, and it featured Keanu Reeves in the lead role. So – not a blond, emotionally-scarred, anti-authoritarian Brit, but a dark-haired American reknowned for his kindness and fundamental decency as a person.

It did not go well. I don’t want to discuss the movie, except to say that my son noted one very telling line. As Reeves is introducing himself to someone nasty in the movie, he says that he is “…John Constantine, asshole.” Unfortunately, the way Reeves delivers the line it doesn’t sound like he’s calling the nasty person an asshole. He actually sounds like “asshole” is a title or a job-description. In other words, Reeves says something much more like “John Constantine: asshole.” Not a bad review of the movie…

Anyway, somebody has decided that Constantine wasn’t completely dead after that effort, and in the wake of DC’s success with Arrow, they’re trying for a Constantine TV series. The pilot, recently made, has been duly leaked and the other day a masked man with a very piratical accent met me in a dark alleyway and gave me a thumb drive with the leaked pilot on it in MP4 format.

I have now seen it. And I am… well, disappointed. Hopeful, but disappointed.

In one sense they’ve learned from their errors. This Constantine is blond, and appropriately Mancunian. The actor who got the job isn’t bad, either. He works with his material, and carries it well. I can believe in his Constantine, and I suspect that in time he might even get closer to the Constantine of the books.

Unfortunately, there are ways in which they have NOT learned. The pilot spends about ten minutes at Ravenscar Asylum in England, then abruptly ports itself to the USA. And then we spend another half hour to forty minutes or so on a Nasty Invading Demon plot which exists purely so that Constantine can a) meet and save the girl who is going to be his second-sighted sidekick through the unfolding series, and b) be railroaded into a situation which demands he must now travel about the USA like a kind of breastless Buffy, hunting down demon incursions and exorcising them.

Oh, sure: there’s an angel, and the angel has explained that ‘something big’ is coming. So no doubt there will be the obligatory over-arching plotline. But in essence, they makers of the show have lined us up for something that falls into the same territory as Buffy and Supernatural, except with a cynical British occultist in the lead instead of a couple of stalwart, manly-chinned American lads, or a high-school teenager and her retinue of misfit buddies.

Sorry, folks. That’s not the Constantine I wanted to see.

Now for sure, it’s a pilot. Maybe they’ll see sense. Maybe they’ll give us some depth, some subtlety, some social commentary, some character work. I did say I was hopeful, right? Well, at the very end there’s a sequence where Constantine is walking through a dark tunnel, monologuing, and he’s playing with his lighter — pouring lighter fluid on his hands, rubbing it in. Then the bad guys jump out and surround him, but Constantine lights up his hands and holds them out like flaming barriers… except the viewers know it’s lighter fluid.

That there is pretty cool. That’s the real John Constantine: showmanship and trickery in a tight spot, making lighter fluid look like napalm and hellfire. I can get behind that piece of characterisation. It suggests that at least one of the writers on the show has read the books and actually developed an understanding of the essential character.

But will there be more of this?

I find it hard to believe. They’ve taken away from Constantine two things which are essential to the character as written. First, because this is a network show, Constantine isn’t allowed to smoke. We see him fiddling with his lighter. We see him stubbing out cigarettes. But network rules are network rules, and this version of John Constantine will never appear from the shadows, his face eerily illumined as he lights up a cigarette and nonchalantly scares the shit out of his opposition.

That may not seem like much, but the better writers knew how to use the imagery. More importantly, they also knew how to show that Constantine himself knew how to use his own imagery. Those cigarette moments were conscious manifestations of Constantine’s dangerous mix of bluff, confidence, and genuine, secret power. It will be difficult for the TV writers to find a similarly iconic means of conveying those things.

The second thing missing is, of course, London. In the comics, Constantine does travel, yes. But he keeps coming back to London, and London is almost as much the heart of the Hellblazer series as John Constantine himself. London is one of the world’s great cities. It is a historic touchstone, a place whose provenance stretches back to the Roman empire and beyond. London is Constantine’s backdrop — but it is also his ally, and sometimes even his enemy.

Constantine travelling across the USA hunting down demons at the behest of a cute American psychic chick?

I am not sanguine. I remind myself: this is a pilot. There’s always the chance that things will get better. Unfortunately, try as I might I cannot forget that they can also stay the same, or even get worse…

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20 comments

  1. barnesm · · Reply

    i admit I’ll find it hard to picture Constantine outside London, I realise in the comixs he did travel but even in the books he would talk about London being more than just a city. I am glad they kept the smoking even if they can not show it since it played such a pivotal role in one of the best stories in Hellblazer ‘Dangerous Habits’
    The other challenge is many of the stories were of that time in Britain under Thatcher that made it seem to make sense that investment types were just another demon, one of many that would prey on the unwary. Stories really captured that sense of hopelessness that the working class were feeling. As John said in Dangerous Habits

    “All I ever wanted was for the world to be free of your kind, whether you were here in Parliament on in senate or junta or Hell or Heaven. Maybe that’s pointless, then. Maybe the people are too small and scared to be free. Maybe they want you there, shitting all over them. But like a salesman who’s only too eager to sew up his market and stitch up his customers, you’re happy enough to exploit that. Aw, sod it. Sod you. For whatever it’s worth, you were always the enemy. So you can listen to what I have to say. Matt was right. I’m not ashamed. I’m not ashamed”.

    1. I think David Cameron’s Britain – and Obama’s USA – are absolutely rife with Thatcherite stories, if that was needed. But really, Constantine’s anti-authoritarian streak doesn’t need Maggie, or David Cameron, or Obama. It just needs assholes in government… and when is that ever a question?

  2. I liked the movie. By reputation I think that I would enjoy the comics, but I’ve never read one. Keano’s not much with the lines, but there weren’t that many, and he does moody and petulant well (and spends a lot of time smoking). Rachel Weisz and (especially) Peter Stormare were great, IMO. Your review is not selling me the series, but thanks: I’ll keep an eye out for it.

    1. The review isn’t meant to sell the series! It represents my response to the pilot — and my response, as a fan of the books, isn’t exactly unbridled delight. Matt Ryan is a good Constantine, but so far the framing of the series is horribly American Generic, and that is likely to stifle the essential nature of the character and the stories. But on the other hand, for fans of Supernatural and Buffy who don’t know the original Constantine of the Hellblazer comics, this might be a very fine thing.

  3. Avishek · · Reply

    Well, I guess if this was a British or international production (like Hannibal), London could have been brought in. But just like Elementary, this shift had to occur for logistics.

    About the smoking, I’m as sad as you are about this. While I do believe they can introduce lung cancer and do the Dangerous Habits arc, but the imagery of John with one of his smokes is so powerful that it was disappoint anyone who reads Hellblazer.

    Still, this is leaps and bounds better than Constantine the film or Constantine the New 52 comics.

    I hope they do include the smoking somehow. London isn’t something I expect can exceed a single or double parter storyline.

    Still, Matt Ryan kills it. I’ve watched his ending description (the one taken from Hellblazer #41) over and over again. And everytime it makes me smile.

    THAT is Constantine.

    1. You’re right about Matt Ryan. And the business with the flaming hands coming at the end of that voice-over at the end — that’s what actually gives me some hope. It will be interesting to see whether the writers channel Constantine, or whether they get beaten into submission and give us a kind of Liverpudlian, breastless Buffy.

  4. I wrote a review myself, right here:
    http://drewchialauthor.com/2014/07/02/constantine-pilot-review/

    I’m a huge Hellbalzer fan myself. I loved Ryan’s portrayal of the character, but the pilot didn’t have much bite. It felt like a PG affair.

    I never thought of Constantine as Johnny the Demon Slayer, myself. He’s a grifter torn between two mobs, I hope the show runners eventually capture that.

    1. That’s not a bad view, actually.

  5. Garlton Bland · · Reply

    Considering he’s your favourite-ever DC character, you should probably know that he’s Liverpudlian, not Mancunian.

    Considering the rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool that’s quite a big mistake to make…

    1. Yep. I caught the error myself, but couldn’t be arsed fixing it.

  6. uhh you forgot to mention the fact that Chas is killed off right away..ugm

    1. He’s not, you know. Didn’t you notice he came back?

  7. Jackson · · Reply

    So considering they just announced that Liv is being written out of the series and Zed is being written in, does that give you more hope? (Because it does for me)

    1. I’m pretty happy to hear it. The actress playing Liv did nothing wrong. She was fine. I just don’t want to see a Constantine series in which Constantine is predictably following his ‘sensitive’ around, kicking the arse of the demon-of-the-week.

      Zed was an interesting character. If it puts a different spin on the direction of the series, I’m keen.

  8. I miss the London setting, but maybe in the future that can be a big part of the show, his return to London.

  9. One other thing, I have not read every issue of Hellblazer, but I not familiar with a character named Jasper Winters, but I am familiar with a character named Baron Winters from Night Force. Could this be an easter egg?

    1. I’m pretty sure they were implying the Baron Winters character. In fact, I thought they said it at one point.

  10. despair tyre · · Reply

    yeah he’s pretty much my favourite comic character too (i’ve read all the constantine comics, including the new ones, swamp thing, and the books of magick), and as such was also disappointed by the pilot and just hope they can claw something back for the actual series.

    matt ryan is clearly a vast improvement over keanu casting wise in general, but there was a couple of moments (only) when the film realized the character much better, in particular dodson : “if you could just show me the way…” (or similar)… constantine silently points to the door … now that is classic constantine!

    also it’s worth pointing out that alot of the uk based constantine stories weren’t in london, plenty of quality stuff elsewhere in england, scotland and ireland … but regardless of all that chas is a *london* cabbie anything, else is a massive fail.

    the smoking … well yeah clearly a shame to scupper some of the best stories but we’re still allowed the drinking so at least brendan and kit can take up the slack!

    anyway, like you i have hope but i’m expecting to be disappointed. thanks for the write up!

  11. Robert S · · Reply

    I had never heard of Constantine before watching the pilot last night, so pardon my ignorance. I enjoyed the show but have a question: the Chas character seemed to have been killed when the power line was thrust through him (albeit Constantine walked away with little emotion), however he showed up looking fine at the end of the show with no explanation. Could someone please enlighten me as to what happened?

  12. Today was my first look at the pilot. I come from a different perspective – I’ve never read the books, though I did see the Reeves movie version. While I rather enjoyed the plotline and the visual imagery and effects, the main thing that came close to ruining the movie is Reeves’ horrible acting. But like this author, I guardedly hope for a vast improvement of the series’ writing – it’s often forced, to the point I can’t suspend my general disbelief and buy into the story. For example, Liv is merely holding a medallion above a map – suddenly she yelps and we see some blood running down her hand and dripping onto the map. While I can buy into some supernatural force that causes the blood to amass at a specific location, I have to roll my eyes in wonder at what made her hand spontaneously bleed.

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