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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Constantine (HD DVD)
Constantine (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // R // June 6, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 3, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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John Constantine is going to Hell.

After suffering through adolescence tortured by visions his young mind couldn't hope to comprehend, Constantine (Keanu Reeves) sought to end his torment the only way he knew how. His teenaged attempt at suicide didn't entirely go according to plan, though; he was only dead a couple of minutes, but those interminable couple of minutes in Hell transformed him. When Constantine re-emerged in this mortal coil, he finally understood his gift...or his curse...however you want to look at it: not with some grim determination to try to make the world a better place or to vanquish the forces of evil, but for fun and profit.

Constantine sees a world to which all but an unlucky few are oblivious. For one, the afterlife isn't that far removed from us. You can take the Belinda Carlisle route and quip that Heaven is a place on earth, or you can say "fuck Armageddon; this is Hell": you're right either way. Beings from these other realms can't meekly cross over from their worlds into ours, although there are half-breeds -- creatures wrapped in human flesh who can't directly participate in this "He who dies with the most souls wins" wager between God and Lucifer, but they wield enough power to influence mankind into shifting the balance one way or the other. When it becomes increasingly clear that Constantine's suicide twenty years ago has damned him to Hell, he tries to buy his way into Heaven by 'deporting' (read: butchering) any half-breed demons who break the rules. Constantine is told by many -- including the angelic Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) -- that it's a wasted, insincere effort. He's undeterred, though; after all, Hell's unpleasant enough as it is, but being damned to a prison teeming with scores of demons that he's responsible for sending there...? Might as well keep at the demon-slaying daily grind and hope that it eventually pays off.

Constantine assumes he has plenty of time to figure out something to stave off an eternity in Hell, but a couple decades of chain-smoking have caught up with him. He may have effortlessly slaughtered countless half-breed demons, but it's something as banal as lung cancer that's finally going to do him in. In between hacking up what's left of his lungs, Constantine's caught up in the investigation of detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) into the death of Isabel, her psychic twin sister. Everyone else writes off the demise of this mentally ill but still devout Catholic as a suicide, but Angela's convinced that there are greater forces at play. As Constantine helps her pierce the veil that hides these half-breeds in plain sight, the two of them become embroiled in a plot by the son of Satan to break through the void and bring about quite literally Hell on earth.

...and all this in a movie coming to HD DVD on 6/6/06. How appropriate.

Constantine claims to be based on the comic book character of John Constantine, who emerged from the pages of Swamp Thing into his own book, Hellblazer, under the pen of a series of talented writers. Try to put that out of your mind: the movie takes so many liberties with the character and concept that it might as well have not been an adaptation at all.

Constantine takes religious-tinged horror and places it in the context of a Hollywood action flick. I have to give it credit for having the guts to present the war between Heaven and Hell in a not-so-marketable way, although really, it's not a deeply theological piece. It's Keanu Reeves with a golden, crucifix-shaped shotgun blasting a roomful of half-breed demons down the middle or lighting a piece of Moses' shroud on fire to decimate an army of winged beasties. Although attempts certainly seem to have been made to keep Constantine accessible to a wider audience, it's only partially dumbed down. The movie isn't bogged down by tons of exposition or heavy-handed foreshadowing. The supporting cast gets just enough time on-screen to set up who they are and what purpose they serve, and then they immediately disappear. Likewise for nearly all of the plot devices. If you miss the one or two sentences setting something up, rewind -- it won't be explained again. Hell, it might never have been explained in the first place. This approach can be unfocused and a little jarring, but it's never confusing. At worst, it just saps away some of the resonance when these thinly drawn, halfway-introduced characters are inevitably knocked off or leave you puzzled as to what happened to the Spear of Destiny, exactly. The climax of the movie isn't riddled with a bunch of overwrought acting, tens of millions of dollars worth of computer effects, and the villain of the piece getting a tractor trailer tossed on his head. It's a conversation, really, and althought that may sound anti-climactic, the inspired casting of a latex-and-CGI-free Peter Stormare as Lucifer keeps it from feeling anything but.

Stormare is one of several perfectly cast actors in Constantine. Tilda Swinton is mesmerizing as Gabriel, and it's difficult to imagine anyone else who could inhabit such a creature in this way. Rachel Weisz does an equally commendable job as the tortured female lead, fleshing out what could have been a thankless role and making her seem like a genuine character with real dramatic weight, not just a plot device, no matter how implausible she is as a police detective. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, is a black hole. Not only does Reeves fail to channel the John Constantine from the comics, he doesn't seem to bring much to the table at all. The wickedly devious personality from the Vertigo comic is sapped away in favor of wooden line readings and a grand total of one facial expression. Think a mopier, more dour Neo with a Chinese cigarette in one hand. The comic character's acerbic wit periodically bleeds through, but the John Constantine in the movie is much duller than someone who slugs demons with enchanted brass knuckles really ought to be.

I wasn't engaged by Constantine, exactly, but I was entranced. Director Francis Lawrence has a strong visual eye, and the offbeat camera angles, spectacular special effects and set design, and energetic demon battles distracted me from the uneven, somewhat clumsy storytelling. Constantine is kind of an indifferent shrug of a movie, and it's not the sort of treatment a character like John Constantine richly deserves, but it's genuinely entertaining, and sometimes that's all that matters.

Video: The phrase "demo material" gets tossed around quite a bit in these early HD DVD reviews, but as tired as you may or may not be of hearing that spouted off again and again, it's unavoidable with a disc as deeply impressive as the 2.40:1 Constantine. The film's visuals are arguably its strongest selling point, and the movie looks terrific on HD DVD in every possible way: colors are beautifully saturated, the image remains crisp and richly detailed throughout, and black levels are deep and inky. There's quite a bit of fast motion in the backgrounds of Hell, and although that would cause Constantine to devolve into a blocky mess on at least some cable and satellite systems, I couldn't spot any artifacting or compression hiccups on this disc. As is the case with virtually every recent theatrical release, the source material is free of any visible wear or speckling. Nitpickers may harp about a tiny bit of film grain that's intermittently visible, but I don't consider that a flaw, nor could I really find much to complain about this presentation of Constantine at all. At least for the moment, this is the disc I'd pull off the shelf to show my friends and family what HD DVD has to offer.

Audio: Constantine includes a Dolby TrueHD track, although without a way to properly decode it at present, it's a disc I'll have to remember to give another spin down the road when more capable hardware is available. This HD DVD also provides the usual assortment of soundtracks and languages, including Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 tracks in English and Quebecois-French, a stereo Spanish dub, and subtitles in all three languages. The Dolby Digital Plus track is phenomenal: aggressive, dynamic, and almost unrelentingly active, with sound roaring from and bouncing around every channel. The lower frequencies are also tight and substantial. My one gripe is that the film's dialogue isn't as consistently intelligible as it should be. It's not that it's overly quiet or finds itself buried in other elements of the mix -- it's just that some line readings are half-mumbled rather than spoken, and I had to backtrack every once in a while to fully make out what was being said. Enunciate, Keanu! That's a fairly minor gripe, all things considered, especially considering how fantastic every other aspect of the audio is.

Supplements: The majority of the extras are carried over from the two-disc special edition DVD, but as the first Warner release to offer the 'In Movie Experience', it does offer something new for HD DVD owners. The general idea is that as you watch the movie, certain moments are punctuated with behind the scenes footage and interviews that appear in small boxes on the screen -- kind of like a commentary, but with visual accompaniment. There are a few notable differences, at least as this feature is implemented on Constantine. One way to look at it is that with a commentary track, the emphasis is on the discussion. With the In Movie Experience on Constantine, the emphasis remains on the movie; the feature is used often, but there isn't always a second video window on the screen or a producer chattering away. Another difference is that Constantine uses the video overlays in a very screen-specific way, delving more in depth into what's happening in the movie at that particular point, so it doesn't cover quite as broad a territory as a commentary would. The In-Movie Experience is an intriguing feature (if a bit more sparsely used here than I was expecting), and on supplement-heavy discs like this, I'd much rather give that a spin than to fumble with a remote and scroll through featurette after featurette. I'm looking forward to seeing how filmmakers approach this in the future.

As far as existing extras are concerned, there's no shortage of them on this disc. Between the movie itself, the In-Movie Experience, a couple of commentary tracks, the deleted scenes, and a small army of featurettes, it'll take somewhere in the neighborhood of ten hours to watch everything this disc has to offer.

I believe the original DVD took two separate recording sessions -- one with director Francis Lawrence and producer Akiva Goldsman and the other with screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Capello -- and edited them into one track. They're provided separately on this HD DVD, and although they both cover a tremendous amount of territory, so much material is retread that they were probably better off as a single commentary. If you only have time for one, I'd recommend sticking with the writers' track since Goldsman's clowning around gets to be a bit of a distraction, and many of Lawrence's most insightful comments can be found elsewhere on this disc.

For instance, the renowned music video director talks about the challenges of helming his first feature film in the five-minute featurette "Director's Confessional". "Conjuring Constantine" spends sixteen minutes on the daunting process of bringing the character from print to a big-budget Hollywood production, focusing heavily on Constantine's origins as a comic book character and interviewing key talent from the film as well as a slew of folks from DC. The story and mythology of John Constantine are also discussed in "Constantine's Cosmology" in which author Phil Cousineau approaches the character from a more literary, critical perspective.

Most of the extras focus on the film's special effects and stuntwork, including featurettes dedicated to creating the 'Vermin Man' (a composite creature consisting of an army of insects and assorted creepy crawlies), Angela getting yanked through the walls of a high-rise office building, the rendering of Constantine's vision of Hell, the abrupt car crash that opens the film, the application of Gavin Rossdale's makeup as the half-breed Balthazar, the choreography behind the shotgun massacre, and designing and creating the wings of the film's angels. The length of these featurettes vary, but they're all rather comprehensive, even the ones that only run for a couple of minutes. The talking heads take care to note why things were done a particular way and not just the nuts-and-bolts of how they pulled it off. I also found it interesting to see that some things I assumed were CGI weren't, as well as how a lot of things I assumed were shot in-camera were actually accomplished with computers. Two featurettes focus on previsualization -- rough, computer-animated storyboards. One has some early imagery assembled by writer Frank Capello, who has a background in effects work. The other, "Foresight: The Power of Previsualization", compares some previsualized shots with the final cut and also shows some abandoned moments, all with optional audio commentary by Francis Lawrence. Aside from the work in the digital domain, some of the more tactile props and weaponry are covered in another featurette.

There are also a series of deleted and extended scenes that run around eighteen minutes total. They further flesh out the world of Constantine and some of its characters, and several of these snippets also introduce Michelle Monaghan's sultry half-breed demon Ellie, who's all but cut out of the movie proper. Lawrence offers optional audio commentary for these deleted scenes, noting why they were removed. A music video for A Perfect Circle's "Passive", a fluffy EPK-style set of interviews with the cast, and a couple of anamorphic widescreen trailers round out the extras.

Conclusion: I'd rather watch a movie that's takes at least a somewhat unconventional approach and doesn't entirely succeed than something that blandly and uninterestingly plays it safe. Constantine, flawed though it may be, unrelentingly held my attention throughout, elevated by its striking visuals and a couple of outstanding performances. No, it's not a great movie, but it's one I know I'll be watching again, and that's more than I can say for a lot of the HD DVDs that'll continue collecting dust on my shelf. The quality of Constantine as a movie is debatable, but as an HD DVD, it's really not: the video and audio are both first-rate, and there are enough extras to keep anyone occupied for a long, long time. My thoughts about the movie are mixed enough that I'd suggest that more hesitant viewers stick with a rental, but I enjoyed Constantine and its release on HD DVD enough that it's worth the usual asking price. Recommended.

The images in this review were lifted from Warner's official Constantine site. They're just meant to break up the text and aren't necessarily representative of the way this HD DVD looks.
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