Keanu Reeves really really wants to break out of his pigeonholed role as the charismatic good guy in an action film, but sometimes he just can’t help himself, and takes the easy paycheck (Chain Reaction may be a good indication of that). But in the action roles he’s noted for, both as Neo in The Matrix trilogy and as John Constantine in Constantine, he’s got the “protagonist with an internal conflict” down pat, that’s for sure.
Written by Kevin Brodbin (who came up with the initial story) and directed by Francis Lawrence, who was previously well-reputed as a music video director (think Tarsem or David Fincher maybe), Reeves plays Constantine as a man with a conflict. While others may think that he has a gift in exorcising and deporting demons, he sees it as a burden, a duty he thinks he should get into heaven for. With the help of a grizzled priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince, Nobody’s Fool) and an aspiring apprentice (Shia LaBeouf, IMDB), he plods along through the days and nights, doing his duty while battling an aggressive form of lung cancer which he doesn’t make any better by chain-smoking.
Enter Angela (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener), a police detective whose identical twin named Isabel died in an apparent suicide in a mental hospital. Angela firmly believes that it was not a suicide because of her sister’s spiritual beliefs, and decides to see if Constantine will help. And after some fairly creative rebuffing, he finally tries to figure out what’s going on, and employs various people including a voodoo doctor (Djimon Hounsou, In America) and an angel-demon mix of some sort named Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia).
There has been a lot of scorn heaped on the film from straying too far from its comic origins, which I’m not too familiar with. In fact, Constantine’s battle as a religious/supernatural warrior bordered more on Ron Perlman’s interpretation of Hellboy more than anything else. The type of character with a history but very secretive about it. The initial friction between John and Angela turns into playful flirtation (of course), but it starts as almost sly humor, but to see him turn her away one more time because, well, “with great power comes great responsibility” nonsense was almost pathetic.
The story itself wasn’t too bad and was a nice rumination on all things heaven and hell, and Reeves portrayal of the title character wasn’t too bad either. Lawrence’s first big studio feature effort wasn’t all that bad (it certainly beats directing Jennifer Lopez for a three minute video), but sometimes some of the visual effects were almost done for the sake of doing them, so they got a little annoying. But it still was an interesting film.
Constantine comes to the HD-DVD world full of 2.4:1 anamorphic widescreen love and attention, and not having seen the film before, the video presentation looked quite impressive. Keanu’s pores and years of acne growing up show up in a lot of detail, particularly at the end scene. When he is face down and exhaling, the water ripples are in full detail. When Satan (Peter Stormare, Dancer in the Dark) breaks into a hospital room, not only are the glass shards floating around, but the glass textures can show it’s not just a sliding backyard door. It’s a real impressive job.
Constantine on HD-DVD is one impressive sounding disc. There’s the soon to be fully experienced Dolby TrueHD to go along with the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound. As it stands, the Plus soundtrack sounds excellent. Lots of use of surround effects, early on in the film as the opening credits roll, your subwoofer gets called into action and stays in place for most of the film. Training Day gave me a similar experience and I was impressed by that, but with Constantine employing a lot more action and effects, this is food for the sonic junkie.
This disc is the first released by Warner to feature the “in-movie experience”, which is kind of a “white rabbit feature” similar to the Matrix films, but on HD-DVDs it serves as a running subtitle track of sorts for the film. In Constantine’s case, it includes footage from some of the behind the scenes featurettes in the film, as well as some recorded on-set recollections from the cast and crew. It’s not as interactive as The Dukes of Hazzard IME, but as its own, a decent freshman effort.
Skipping the two commentary tracks (one from Lawrence and producer Akiva Goldman, the other from Brodbin and Frank Cappello) and moving onto 14 featurettes, with the total runtime for everything an hour and 40 minutes. The cast shares their thoughts on the film and the comic book along with a look at the origins of the comic (hooray, another comic by a British guy whose anti-Thatcher anti-Reagan rhetoric helped enslave people and gave him a job making a bunch of cash!). Lawrence (who also has some optional commentary pieces elsewhere on the disc) shares his thoughts on his first feature film, along with some of the previsualized scenes in it. Some of the key scenes are discussed from storyboards to realized product, along with some production footage and stunt sequences, and Constantine’s weapons are explained by the props team, and the demons are explained by the visual effects and makeup teams.
To top all this off, there’s almost 20 minutes worth of deleted scenes (with Lawrence commentary) that give some more depth to Constantine’s character (including a small subplot/romance with a demon that appears to be Michelle Monaghan from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang). Rounding things out are a music video, a trailer and a teaser.
Of all the HD DVDs I’ve seen to this point, Constantine has looked good, sounded great and provided a wealth of supplemental material, some of it being HD-DVD exclusive. The IME is a work in progress and some kinks need to be figured out, but if all of these new discs can be like this, I’ll enjoy the new format a little more.