It’s not been an easy life for John Constantine. A cynical chain-smoking working class magician and occult detective decades before Harry Dresden made it trendy, his greatest misfortune may be that for many the world over, despite having guested in other comics before his own title Hellblazer debuted in 1988, he is best known to many as the inspiration behind the 2005 film Constantine where Keanu Reeves was inconceivably placed in the title role contrary to anything which could be regarded as appropriate or good sense.
This is not to say that the film did not have aspects to recommend it such as the performances of Rachel Weisz, Gavin Rossdale, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Djimon Hounsou and most particularly Peter Stormare and Tilda Swinton, but even their collective power could not help director Francis Lawrence coax the hint of a convincing performance from Hollywood’s most inexplicable leading man.
Almost a decade down the line, former Dexter showrunner Daniel Cerone has teamed with Blade, Dark Knight and Man of Steel writer David S Goyer to give Constantine a second chance at redemption, scripting a pilot episode directed by Dog Soldiers’ Neil Marshall, more recently known as the man who presided over the battle of Blackwater Bay on Game of Thrones, and most crucially casting Matt Ryan, previously seen on the short lived Criminal Minds spinoff Suspect Behaviour.
Not only is the lean actor of British origin (Welsh rather than English, though with Swansea less than two hundred miles from Constantine’s hometown of Liverpool), unlike Reeves he has bleached his normally dark hair to match the appearance of his comic book inspiration and, also unlike Reeves, he can actually act, at turns weary, put upon, determined and dangerous throughout premiere episode Non Est Asylum.
Having voluntarily entered the Ravenscar Psychiatric Facility for the Mentally Deranged in Northern England, Constantine is trying to escape his past, hoping that the borderline torture of electroconvulsive therapy may wipe the worst memories of a botched exorcism where the soul of a nine year old girl was dragged to Hell.
Calling himself a “Petty dabbler in the black arts,” he is listless and isolated and doesn’t want to be called back into service when another patient is possessed, requiring him to perform an impromptu exorcism in the art room before departing, spurred by a message from a dead friend scrawled on the wall which takes him across the ocean to Atlanta, Georgia to locate Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths) wild eyed and out of her depth.
The daughter of his late friend, Constantine arrives just in time to save her from the forces of darkness which threaten her for which she is none too grateful, and understandably so, her life turned upside down as she is suddenly confronted with a world she is ill equipped to deal with.
Perhaps wary of the reticence viewers have to an untried property and the habit networks have of cancelling shows prematurely, the audience are thrown in as deeply as Liv: flashbacks, car crashes, the dead rising, flaming tornadoes, frozen time, demon seals, incantations and a mirror which reflects out of time. “If you’re not confused you’re not paying attention,” Constantine explains, but with little hint of apology.
The opening exorcism is over the top, out of place and unnecessary, the parking lot scene where Constantine rescues Liv spends too long trying to be creepy before resorting to computer generated histrionics as the world literally collapses around her, and the subsequent appearance of Harold Perrineau’s angel Manny is undisguised exposition, Constantine’s backstory quoted to him as though it was news, and much of the episode is playing with emotion as yet unearned.
With the failure of the film to connect, the pilot is utterly determined that it should have the broadest appeal, throwing ideas at the screen with manic abandon as it struggles hard to be effortlessly cool but the result is so concerned with promising all the things that the series can be depending on what direction the network should choose to go that it fails to offer a genuine hook, and it is hoped that the full show will not focus on collecting cursed objects in the manner of Warehouse 13 and the Friday the 13th television show.
Fortunately, the first indication that the series may settle down and move in a different direction is that the series proper has replaced Griffiths with Angélica Celaya’s Zed Martin, a character drawn from the comic who is glimpsed in a final shot which recalls the graphic origins of the story.
Perhaps conscious that while John Constantine predates Supernatural by decades, the character’s first appearance in The Saga of Swamp Thing issue 25 when Dean Winchester was only five years old, that show has a decade of audience recognition on a rival network, and as a result Constantine is so concerned with getting to the next moment which can be regarded as a selling point that it forgets that it needs to find a strong voice which can be regarded as its own.
Through the overly hysterical pilot it is Ryan’s rumpled Constantine who grounds it, displaying the grumpy air of one who is pretending not to care. Knowing he is already doomed, he is still determined to do the best he can in the time he has and is not above blackmailing a friend to get cooperation. While the show has a long way to go, even if Ryan is only granted a few episodes to make his mark he has already eclipsed the memory of Keanu Reeves. “I’m a firm believer in repressing the past,” he says, and justly so.