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In 2005, I went to see Keanu Reeves play a doomed wizard named John Constantine. Having no background in comics, the film left me excited. Excited enough I went on to read and eventually write some urban fantasy of my own. You might call it my gateway drug, and you’d be right. Say what you want about the film (I know many fans hated it) but it got me interested.
Fifteen years later, I finally got around to reading the comics. Or some of them. This year, I read Original Sins and The Devil You Know and I’m about 60% of the way through The Spark and the Flame (a sort of reboot on the original character). I’ve got some frame of reference, but let me preface this by saying I’m no comic book expert.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the film.
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“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that there are no happy endings.”
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Ever since watching the doomed show on NBC, Matt Ryan IS John Constantine in my head. When I heard he’d be reprising his role in City of Demons, I got excited. I’d seen Justice League Dark and left wanting more. After viewing the first “episode” on CW Seed, I knew I was in for a treat.
City of Demons opens with a scream and a shot of Ravenscar, a mental health institute. If you know the original origin story (the original, not the one in the New 52 reboot) then you can already guess part of what’s about to play out, and it plays out mostly like you’d expect, except far, FAR tamer than what I read in the comics. Still, it’s plenty disturbing to watch an all-powerful hero like Constantine reduced to tears when he fucks up his first big spell.. Big time. The event lands him in Ravenscar hovering on the edge of sanity and abandoned by most of his friends.
Everyone except Chas Chandler. He’s about the only one who stood by John during all that.
Flash forward after we see John in the midst of a breakdown (and dealing with a little out of control magic) and an older, wiser Constantine is wrestling with his inner demons. Literally. Someone is screwing with his head. Fortunately, Chas interrupts. He’s there to ask for John’s help. Dark magic has his daughter in a coma and to save her, Constantine will have to travel to Los Angeles and do the bidding of a twisted demon…
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“He learned that night that his natural gift wasn’t gift enough.”
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This is very much a film about friendship. Never thought I’d say that about a Constantine movie. The relationship, past and present, between John and Chas really drives the narrative. The two bonded as children, and tragedy brought them even closer only to force them apart again prior to the opening of the film. Without spoilers, I will say John is right when he says early in the film “There’s always a price to pay.” As usual, one could argue that he passes the buck to someone else, though he makes a hefty sacrifice at the end as well.
I’m usually not a fan of comparing story mediums. However, in this instance, it’s something worth talking about. Aside from minor changes to the origin story that reduce the horror aspects, I feel this film is in keeping with the spirit of the character and his dark world, even though some liberties are taken. There are some horrific moments—plenty of blood, guts, and decaying bodies to go around, and yes, even a disturbing sex scene. At least I found it weird… But still in keeping with what I’d expect.
There are places where the dialogue is a bit stilted or felt forced, but mostly from side characters, but nothing huge.
The biggest negative thing I have to say about this film concerns a jarring scene transition. The demon he’s negotiating with is standing by a pool of decaying bodies with John and invites him to a party. One moment, John is in a party and clearly believes himself to be physically there. Then suddenly the screen cuts back to them standing beside a pool as if they never left. No one seems too confused by this, and it’s never mentioned. No explanation is given. It was a jump in the narrative that was hard to recover from.
The way Constantine takes down five more demons felt a bit shoehorned in. The demons mention he promised something so he was clearly in contact with them at some point, but we never see that moment on screen. Bummer, especially since I would’ve loved to see how that got animated. The tactic used to defeat those five demons is also unusual and left me wanting more in the way of explanation, but how it played out was cool to watch on screen.
I’m giving it a 4/5. All the narrative holes were things I could fill in on my own and it was entertaining enough I’ll be converting my rental into a purchase. Please keep in mind this isn’t going to be kid friendly, and if you’re easily offended, the surly low-rent mage probably won’t be your cup of tea.
Come on though. It’s Constantine. Expect snark and a fun, if disturbing ride.