Fans of the comic series featuring John Constantine were optimistic when they got their first look at the new NBC show’s TV version of the character. Visually inspired by pop star Sting, the original Constantine was a Liverpool con man who used his devious mind as well as his magic to fight supernatural forces. While the 2005 movie strayed wildly with Keanu Reeves in the lead role, the actor’s larger-than-life image has cast a big shadow over the more faithful TV incarnation.
The Towering Keanu
One of the things that made Reeves so successful in film is his ability to fill the screen. His handsome features and long, lean body draw the eye in every scene. He towers over everyone else, and exudes power and control with every movement. In the movie “Constantine,” he thrusts his hands out, mutters Latin incantations, and the viewer believes every minute in the forceful magic he conjures. Underneath the rude irreverence in his dialogue, we feel a dangerous anger lurking.
The TV version of “Constantine” gives us Matt Ryan, a blonde U.K. native who more closely resembles the source material in the comic. He seems small and slight, the type of guy who wiggles in and out of trouble rather than blasting it away. When he works his magic, it’s more like a snake oil salesman who found a few relics that were actually real. It’s a lot harder to be impressed with a scrappy con man than a looming avenger.
Where’s the Brooding Anti-Hero?
Reeves’ Constantine was extremely closed-off, only giving the faintest hint of notice to his small collection of odd occult friends. As a child he’d seen terrifying things he couldn’t understand. His failed suicide means an eternity in hell, and that knowledge leads him to desperate and self-destructive behavior. The actor gives us subtle peeks behind the emotional walls. He shows us the fear of his destiny, anguish over his friends’ deaths, and his gradually increasing affection for Angela (Rachel Weisz).
In contrast, Ryan’s anti-hero seems insubstantial. The “Constantine” pilot informs us he’s haunted by a young girl’s soul trapped in Hell, but we don’t see any angst in his performance. He swaggers from scene to scene, mocking the events and anyone who doesn’t have his supernatural knowledge. So far he comes across as an eccentric troublemaker who will never care for anyone but himself.
Will Ryan Win Us Over?
The TV actor has some obstacles Reeves didn’t face. In a film, the character can go through a complete arc of self-discovery and redemption. With several seasons hopefully ahead of him, Ryan has to give us a shell of a man and then gradually fill in the details. He’s also hampered by the censorship which forbids smoking on TV. Angrily puffing on cigarettes when your lungs are dying says a lot about a character, and Ryan doesn’t have that easy shorthand available.
The writers are uncertain about the motivations of the character, completely altering the direction of the series after the pilot. The tone of the show veers between serious drama and the more campy style of “Supernatural.” The added affectations of “mate” and “love” to Constantine’s dialogue gives us an American version of a British fake-sounding accent.
Once the writers finally settle on a solid path for the character, Ryan can create a more believable and natural-sounding Constantine. It will take a lot to erase the image of Reeves’ impressive conjurer, but with enticing weekly plots, the TV show still has the chance to step out of the movie’s shadow.
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