There’s a scene in the ill-regarded 2009 movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where Hugh Jackman, acknowledged to be generally perfect in this role, gets to deliver the character’s most representative quote: “I’m the best there is at what I do – and what I do ain’t very nice” – and you just don’t believe him. Despite all Jackman’s aptness in the role, the line just doesn’t land.
There’s a similar moment in the pilot for the TV show Constantine, where Matt Ryan delivers a key quote for the title character – “I’m a nasty piece of work – ask anyone”.
I believed him. But…
John Constantine has existed as a character (and, according to creator Alan Moore, possibly something more) since 1985. From his first appearance in Moore & Steve Bissette’s Saga Of The Swamp Thing, then his own comic Hellblazer (written at various points by the cream of British comic scribes) and finally the current New 52 reboot series Constantine, he’s been in print constantly (heh) for nearly thirty years. (For more deep background, this recent piece by Abraham Reisman at Vulture is excellent.)
Until now, he’s been adapted for the screen just once, with varied results. The 2005 film Constantine got mixed reviews, with fans of the character scathing in their response to the casting of Keanu Reeves in the lead. Worse – instead of the character as shown in the comics, a blond working class magician born in Liverpool and matured in London, we got Keanu as a middle-class suburban Angeleno psychic with spooky tatts in a script that stripped away everything about the character that mattered, other than him being a smoker and a bastard. The film is basically an OK supernatural action thriller – but John Constantine isn’t really in it.
The 2014 TV series pilot ‘Non Est Asylum’ – leaked online some months back, now re-edited with new scenes – has certainly got John Constantine in it… shame is, at the moment he’s in a fairly run-of-the-mill TV supernatural action thriller.
First, the good stuff…
As far as being a proper bastard John Constantine, true to the spirit of the comic… Matt Ryan had me at ‘bollocks’. He’s swaggering, sarcastic, dangerous – a nasty piece of work to be sure, but one whose anger, fear and damage is very near the surface. Not quite the cool customer of later comics, he’s still raw from recent traumatic events – I hope we see the truly on-it Constantine evolve as the show goes on.
The decision to give Constantine’s accent more than a hint of his Liverpool home was a smart one – it even gives the American pronunciation of his name (it should be Kon-Stan-Tyne, not Kon-Stan-Teen – it says so in the comic) a degree of plausibility. Almost.
Serious effort has gone into adapting Constantine’s comic history into a show set in the US and updated for our times. Major aspects of his back story are shown: the Newcastle Event (where his failure led to the death and damnation of a young girl named Astra at the hands of the demon Nergal and the condemnation of Johns' soul to the same when he dies), his subsequent incarceration in Ravenscar asylum (in the show, voluntarily), even his torment at his father’s hands due to the death of his mother in childbirth. His magical style is shown as eclectic, combining many traditions with Judaeo-Christian elements in what he calls a ‘proprietary blend’, just as it should be.
Other aspects of the character are toned down; network rules mean he can’t be seen smoking (but he will apparently be putting out a lot of ciggys in ashtrays), it’s been made clear by the showrunners that (at least for the moment) the show will not address his canonical bisexuality. And I’m a little peeved at how short his trenchcoat is… but for the most part, I’m damn happy with this Constantine.
The show itself, however, has an ironic hill to climb. We’re a long way from Conjob's starting days – an entire genre of urban fantasy has arisen, giving us a wide range of street-mages and demon-hunters, and this year alone the show is airing alongside such genre examples as Grimm, Sleepy Hollow and Supernatural (now in its tenth year). The pilot follows along all-too-similar lines to much of these shows’ output, though it’s crisply directed by Neil Marshal of Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Game Of Thrones fame – it’s going to have to do something special to win over an audience.
Several scenes from the pilot were changed from the ‘leaked’ version which appeared over the summer: most notably, what was to have been the female show lead and audience POV character has been unceremoniously written out be the end of the episode (a shame for actress Lucy Griffith as Liv… but the character was the weak link, through no fault of her own). Also, the final boss battle with the demon was reshot to have it appear in the form of Constantine-as-demon, a supposed look at his damned future, which lands much better than the generic menace in the original version.
Despite the hiccups and dilution, I have a lot of hope for the show. I like the aloof viciousness of Harold Perrineau’s angel ‘Manny’, Jeremy Davies is perfect casting as John’s unwilling associate and fellow Newcastle veteran Ritchie Simpson and the prospect of major Hellblazer characters such as Papa Midnite and Zed (as the new female lead), as well as other DC occult figures, holds much promise. Hell, I even like this version of Chas (now an American cabbie, nicely played by Charles Halford, formerly Reggie Ledoux in True Detective).
So, give it a punt. Know what I mean?