The premiere episode of CONSTANTINE stumbles across the television screen rather like a loud and boisterous drunk stumbling out of a bar: it catches your attention, and you sense its charm, but half the time its incoherent ramblings make no sense. “Non Est Asylum” (“there is no asylum”) also betrays evidence of being a busted pilot that was rejiggered at the last minute when series producers Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer decided to move the series in a different direction. As unsatisfying as the episode is, it is not likely to hook audiences, but it does show enough promise to interest sympathetic viewers in checking out another episode or two.
The story begins in media res, with John Constantine (Matt Ryan) cooling his heels in a mental asylum, recuperating from the fallout of a failed exorcism, which resulted in not only the death but also apparently the eternal damnation of an innocent girl. Fortunately, some paranormal activity inspires Constantine to leave the asylum (apparently, he just checks himself out – which has the benefit of keeping the narrative going but somewhat undermines the grimy semblance of “reality” that the series affects). An angel named Manny (Harold Perrinuea) shows up to inform Constantine that there is a “Rising Darkness” on the horizon – some kind of apocalyptic threat requires Constantine to get off the sidelines and back into the game. Though unconvinced of his role in the larger war, Constantine tracks down Liv Aberdine, the daughter of an old friend, out of a sense of personal obligation – because she is being tormented by a demon. After Constantine introduces Liv to his compatriot Chas Chandler (Charles Halford), Liv demonstrates an aptitude for “scrying” – that is, marking a map with drops of blood that reveal where supernatural activity will take place. Constantine eventually identifies the demon haunting Liv: Furcifer, who has an affinity for electricity. Constantine lures Furcifer into a trap while another old associate hacks the city’s grid, turning off all electricity, thus draining the demon’s power. Opting out of demon-hunting as a career move, Liv bids adieu to Constantine and Chas, but leaves behind her scrying map.
“Non Est Asylum” establishes the tone and style of the CONSTANTINE series. Angels and demons are real, battling for the souls of individuals and for the fate of all mankind. But this archetypal fairy-tale is presented in recognizably human terms, seen through the cynical eyes of its titular character, someone who has been there and done that, many times, and would probably rather be enjoying an evening at the pub instead of hunting evil entities.
Matt Ryan makes the show work. His John Constantine is a wonderful fantasy variation on hard-boiled characters like Philip Marlowe – the cynical, boozy exterior hiding a tired and slightly tarnished knight on the inside, one who knows the score and ins’t happy about it – but, despite his griping, will do what is necessary to set things right.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast does not fare so well, giving performances that are functional in roles that are defined mostly in terms of skills rather than personality. Liv has the ability to scry; Chas can survive apparent death. In both cases, the abilities are more interesting than the characters possessing them, and neither actor is up to the task of fleshing out the thin writing. The jury is still out on Perrineau’s angelic Manny: his strangely pointed stare and affectless body language could be an evocation of his character’s otherworldly nature, or simply a symptom of underacting.
Also, there are several absurdities in “Non Es Asylum,” which are apparent even to viewers who are not cantankerous critics. To begin with, the opening narrative gambit is a bit odd: instead of being introduced to television audiences unfamiliar with the comic, Constantine is presented as a known identity, so we never question his sanity and wonder why he even bothers talking to a psychiatrist trying to convince him that demons are unreal. In fact, the first sequence feels as if it belongs at the beginning of a second-season opener, following upon the heels of a devastating season one cliffhanger.
Liv is introduced in a spectacular special effects scene involving a city street splitting open to reveal belching flames, after which Constantine appears to offer help. Shortly thereafter, Liv is seen returning home, telling a friend how creeped out she was by the appearance of this stranger – who apparently made such an impression that she forgot the fires of hell erupting through the pavement. (The notion that this hell hole remains open is simply glossed over; later we learn the Liv has psychic visions, so we just have to assume that the conflagration took place only in her mind.)
Best of all, Constantine’s method of dispatching Furcifer requires the complete blackout of an entire city’s electrical supply. We’re supposed to cheer the clever plan, and the special effects showing Atlanta plunging into darkness are mean to be of the “ain’t it cool!” variety, but the script seems rather blissfully indifferent to the thought of hospital life support systems and airport control towers suddenly off-line and the inevitable loss of life that would result.
This silliness might be acceptable in a tongue-in-cheek romp, but CONSTANTINE affects a serious tone, in which the threat of eternal damnation weighs heavily on its title character, who suffers pangs of regret over the fatality that resulted from his previous failure. Here’s a hint, John: if you feel bad because your demon-hunting got one innocent killed, avoid plans that are likely to kill hundreds, even thousands.
Liv’s presence is awkwardly interpolated. As a newcomer to Constantine’s world of magic and the dark arts, she should act as the audience identification figure – our eyes and ears. But since we see Constantine first, this function for Liv is short-circuited; instead, the episode seems to be about bringing her into the fold. Then, having gone to all the trouble of introducing her, the episode summarily dismisses Liv at the end. Apparently, Liv was intended to be a regular character, but scenes were reshot to dispatch her so that a different character could take her place in subsequent episodes: “Non Es Asylum” ends with a woman, face unseen, cranking out drawings of John Constantine, apparently inspired by psychic visions; we meet her in the next episode, “The Darkness Beneath.”
Liv leaves behind her scrying map, which is pockmarked with a multitude of blood-spots, indicating that enormity of the Rising Darkness that is to come. Though the Rising Darkness becomes the show’s continuing story arc, Liv’s map will actually have little impact on future episodes.
CONSTANTINE: “Non Est Asylum.” Air date: 10/24/2014. Written by Daniel Cerone. Directed by Neil Marshal. Cast: Matt Ryan, Charles Halford, Harold Perrineau, Lucy Griffiths, Jeremy Davies.
If you’re not getting enough televised horror from your cable and streaming outlets (THE WALKING DEAD, PENNY DREADFUL, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, SALEM, etc), broadcast network NBC has something for you: following GRIMM on Friday nights, CONSTANTINE is an adaptation of DC’s Hellblazer comic series, starring Matt Ryan as John Constantine – a scruffy Irish scrapper who dabbles in the dark arts, rescuing victims from malicious supernatural entities and perhaps rescuing mankind as a whole (though this remains to be seen).
Midway through the show’s initial slate of thirteen episodes (no more have been ordered, though the show may yet be renewed for a second season), CONSTANTINE has established itself as engaging and reasonably entertaining, if uneven and frequently confused about its direction. Its strength lies primarily in the basic premise and the conception of its titular character, a world and somewhat cynical man, possibly damned, whose skills have made him a somewhat reluctant warrior in a battle against Evil – a battle that may save his soul not only from eternal damnation but also from the personal guilt he feels over a past failure.
From episode to episode, regardless of the strength of the stories, Ryan inhabits the role as if he were born to play it. His John Constantine walks a fine line – just enough cynicism to give the character a believable edge, just enough hint of empathy to humanize him without dulling that edge. His performance has been more than enough to hold attention while the show finds its legs, which have been a bit wobbly so far – partly because of producer uncertainty, partly because of network interference.
To date, we have seen a major supporting character introduced, dispatched, and replaced, leaving behind a plot device (a map indicating future confrontations) that figures into the stories so infinitesimally that it could easily be discarded. We have also seen some fiddling around with episode air dates, resulting in minor but regrettable continuity problems.
The only continuing story arc is the “Rising Darkness” – a suggestion that weekly phenomenon are part of build-up toward some kind of apocalyptic confrontation. So far, this idea has seen little development, coming across more like a lip-service attempt to suggest a connection between otherwise disparate story lines. It does not help that, since this is the first season, we have no baseline comparison to make between Constantine’s past opponents and his current foes – who, we have to accept on faith, are suddenly much stronger than expected.
There are a few hints that the arc is heading somewhere, including a bombshell prediction at the end of Episode 5. Unfortunately, because NBC aired at least one episode out of order (Episode 6, the Halloween-themed “Rage of Caliban,” was clearly supposed to air the month before its November 28 debut), the development seems erratic; the show seems to be treading water when Constantine causally mentions the Rising Darkness at the end of the episode, without any of the concern one would expect in light of previous events.
We have to give the producers credit for trying to craft a show that stands or falls on the strength of its individual episodes. Unlike shows (such as THE WALKING DEAD) that adopt the soap opera format to hook audiences into tuning in each week to see what happens next, regardless of whether what happened before actually warrants a further look, CONSTANTINE’s stories are largely self-contained. Though not all have been compelling, “A Feast of Friends” (Episode 4, November 14) and “Danse Vaudou” (Episode 5, November 21) have proven that CONSTANTINE has can at least occasionally reach its full potential.
CONSTANTINE is not squeamish about about delivering its weekly quotient of horror. The computer-generated special effects are nicely done, and the impact is surprisingly powerful, even visceral, for a network show. (Ironically, the character’s chain-smoking is far more circumspect, and his bi-sexuality is so far completely submerged.) We also rather enjoy the way the show’s archetypal battle of Good vs. Evil plays out in relatively human terms, lending a sort of streetwise credibility to the otherwise incredible events.
The supporting cast and guest stars have yet to make a memorable impression, except for Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnight (a voudoun priest who is alternately an antagonist and an ally to Constantine) and Emmett J. Scanlan as police detective Jim Corrigan (who all DC fans know is destined to become The Spectre, should the show last long enough).
Overall, we get the impression that CONSTANTINE is attempting something along the lines of what has been seen in PENNY DREADFUL, pitting highly flawed and tormented human characters against demons both literal and personal. It has to be said that the writing seldom if ever reaches the heights achieved by John August in the Showtime series. We should also note that, although fans may be pleased by the television show’s more faithful depiction of the comic character, the movie version of CONSTANTINE (2005) with Keanu Reeves was actually more effective screen version of the material. Still, once one wipes these comparisons from the slate, CONSTANTINE is good enough to survive on its own terms, and we hope to see it return next season.
This film combines elements of comic book fantasy with horror to create an enjoyable brew – sort of a film noir version of THE EXORCIST, crossbred with the stylization of THE MATRIX. Keanu Reeves is excellent in the title role, a sort of self-interested superhero, battling the forces of Evil (and sometimes the forces of Good, too).
The story, based on the Hellblazer comic books, maintains suspense by imagining a Manichean world evenly divided between Good and Evil, which are portrayed as opposing forces locked in an eternal war that follows its own set of rules, regardless of the collateral damage on either side. Our cynical hero seems to see little difference between them; at least, he joins the forces of good not out of any altruism but to advance his own personal agenda.
Most of the special effects and supernatural manifestations are of the entertaining “aint-it-cool” variety, but a few segue into the genuinely horrific (such as an early exorcism scene). The film runs through a stack of familiar cliches (for example, Constantine has a young helper who wants to get off the sidelines and prove himself), but the writing and performances make them work; on a few occasions, they are even genuinely moving.
Overall, this is an imaginative effort — one of the better comic book adaptations of recent years, even better than the recent HELLBOY, which covered somewhat similar terrain.
The film’s plot bears some remarkable siimlarities to the 1995 film THE PROPHECY. In both cases, the war between Good and Evil is portrayed as a take-no-prisoners battle in which even angels are soldiers who may inflict collateral damage. In both cases, the angel Gabriel turns out to be the true villain, and in both films Satan makes a third act appearance that aids hero (not out of the goodness of his heart but because it serves his own interests).
According to the Internet Movie Database, Alan Moore created the character of John Constantine at the behest of artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, who wanted to draw a character resembling Sting. Unhappy with the film adaptations of his other works (FROM HELL and LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN), Moore swore off Hollywood and declined a “created by” credit on CONSTANTINE.
The two-disc collector’s set includes numerous bonus features and a collectible Hellblazer comic book, featuring a reprint of issue #41, plus a Hellblazer short story. DISC ONE: the feature film, with audio commentary from director Francis Lawrence, producer Akiva Goldsman, and screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello; a Perfect Circle music video titled “Passive”; and two theatrical trailers. DISC TWO: 18 minutes of deleted scenes, including an alternate ending; “Conjuring Constantine”; “Production from Hell” documentary gallery; ‘”Imagining the Underworld” documentary gallery; “Constantine Cosmology”; “Foresight: the Power of Previzualization.”
The audio commentary alternates between two different discussions: one between director Lawrence and producer Goldsman; one between screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello. Even with four voices, the commentary is not enough to fill the whole film, leaving gaps during certain scenes. Both conversations end as the credits start to roll, leaving the post-credits epilogue with commentary
The commentary is somewhat informative, but as often happens, it repeats information available in the other supplemental features. It is also frequently dull, merely explaining scenes to us. Goldsman tends to be jokey, interrupting Lawrence to say things like “This scene bugs me!” (during the Vermin Man sequence, of course). Brodbin and Cappello wander off into generalities instead of focusing on specific scenes.
We do learn a few interesting things, such as that Brodbin was working on the script back in 1996. Also, a few story points are clarified that are left vague in the film (for instance, it is Gabriel, not Mammon, who “dusts off” the remains of Balthazar after he has served his purpose – something you could probably figure out if you sat down and reasoned it through, but which the film itself never states).
The music video is of minor interest; outside of the footage from CONSTANTINE itself, there is little worth watching, and the song is merely okay. The two trailers are labeled “teaser” and “theatrical,” but the teaser trailer is basically a shorter earlier version of the later, complete with footage from the film (which is often not the case in teaser trailers, which are usually put together early to “tease” the audience before the film is completed).
Disc Two is loaded with features that are filled with interesting information. Many of the interviews were conducted on-set of specifically for the DVD, so this is a bit more than the talking-head “press junket” stuuf that often ends up as supplemental material.
“Conjuring Constantine” takes a look at the history of the comic book character and how he came to the big screen, which involved a change of nationality from English to American.
Production from Hell offers three short documentaries. “Director’s Confessional” looks at Lawrence’s transition from music video to feature film. “Collision with evil” takes us behind the scenes of the spectacular car wreck near the beginning. And “Holy Relics” examines the effort to create realistic looking props.
Imagining the Underworld also offers several vignettes, this time related to special effects. “Hellscape” reveals that Hell was intended to look like a Los Angeles freeay, the idea being that wherever you were on Earth, there was a parallel version in Hell. “Visualizing Vermin” takes a look at the creation of the Vermin Man sequence, in which a demon appears in the form of a multitude of bugs (curiously, the live-action suit used for reference looks better in someways, than the CGi that ended up in the film). “Warrior Wings” tells us that Lawerence wanted darker wings (inspired by classical paintings) for the Angel Gabriel, not traditional white ones; the special effects people created them in the computer, modeled after a bird of prey, like a hawk. “Unholy Abduction” shows us how the character of Angela was dragged kicking and screaming through the walls of a building, using mostly miniature and greenscreen effects.
“Constantine Cosmology” offers up an analysis of the mythic underpinnings of the film, but it is not particularly insightful.
“Foresight: The Power of Pre-Vizualization” offers up a handful of animatics that were used to pre-visualize scenes, to help with camera placement and special effects. The computer-generated versions run below the finished versions from the film, for comparison and contrast; there are also three scenes that were not film. An optional commentary from director Lawrence explains why changes were made or scenes abandoned.
The Deleted Scenes are mostly transitional stuff and additional exposition that are not particularly enlightening. We do see the shorter version of the Vermin Man sequence (which originally had only eight effects shots due to budget restraints). And we see Constantine in bed with Ellie, the half-breed demon who was cut out of the film. None of the scenes is essential, and all were wisely deleted, improving the film.
CONSTANTINE (2005). Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, story by Brodbin, based on the Hellblazer comic books by Jamie Delano & Garth Ennis. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Max Baker, Gavin Rossdale, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare