We've all heard the old saying that you don't have to believe in a movie to enjoy it, you just have to suspend your disbelief. Perhaps never has that been as true as with 'Constantine,' a movie with a premise so ludicrous it is hard to imagine even the most devout Jesuit priest being scared by its over-the-top satanic gobbledygook. Then again, 'Constantine' is also so unrelentingly earnest in its own apocalyptic hokum that gosh darn if I didn't start to admire it just for its sheer sincerity alone.
Based on DC Comics/Vertigo graphic novel series, 'Constantine' stars Keanu "Whoa!" Reeves as John Constantine, a burnt-out demon hunter bargaining to save his own soul and gain entrance to heaven by performing exorcisms. He's laconic, cynical, a doubter. Then into his life comes Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), whose late sister Isabel (also Weisz) has just jumped to her death after years in an insane asylum -- and the connection between Constantine and Angela/Isabel is deeper than it at first appears. Meanwhile, the ancient "Spear of Destiny" has just been uncovered by a random thief, and if it falls into the wrong hands the human race could fall prey to Satan himself. The stage is now set for the ultimate battle of good and evil -- Angela and Constantine must team up to "balance out the imbalance," and are thrust into an investigation of the world of demons and angels that exist just beneath the landscape of contemporary Los Angeles.
On the surface, 'Constantine' would seem to most resemble a videogame version of 'The Exorcist,' but I thought it's vibe was far more 'Blade Runner.' Reeves plays Constantine like he's channeling Harrison Ford's Deckard rather than Max Von Sydow's Father Merrin, winding his way through the 'Runner'-esque horror-noir of 'Constantine's otherworldly L.A. with a cigarette permanently attached to his mouth and pessimism to burn. Weisz's skeptical Angela is also physically reminiscent of Sean Young in 'Blade Runner,' mixed in with a bit of 'X-Files' Scully. And as aided by Philippe Rousselot's dark cinematography and director Francis Lawrence's edgy pacing, 'Constantine' so co-opts 'Blade Runner's overall look and feel that I kept expecting Daryl Hannah to come bouncing in dressed as a demon and do an acrobatic routine.
This isn't to say 'Constantine' is nearly as good of a film as 'Blade Runner.' But Lawrence, working off of an ambitious script by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, at least attempts to integrate more profound ideas into his film than your typical horror/CGI-fest. Granted, since I'm not religious I didn't believe one second of this ridiculousness, but I do appreciate filmmakers who possess the courage of their convictions. Even if I didn't believe in 'Constantine,' the filmmakers wanted me to, so I went along for the ride willingly. I even enjoyed all the talky, self-conscious debate about the nature of heaven and hell, man's propensity for violence, God's ultimate plan for humankind, etc., that infuses the film. Sure, it doesn't add up to much in the end, but at least the film dares to ask such questions at all.
Unfortunately, the film eventually tosses most of the metaphysical discussion right out the window in favor of standard-issue, effects-laden videogame action sequences. Indeed, most of 'Constantine's runtime plays like a back-and-forth tennis match between Reeves and Weisz holding dialogues on spirituality and religion, with surreal CGI-laden attacks by scary-looking demons. Because I never quite believed in either character enough to ultimately care what happened to them (though Oscar-winner Weisz is compelling in what could have been an utterly thankless role), 'Constantine' is never really that scary, and its action never really that thrilling. And as a think piece, the film fails to develop enough of its ideas to excite the intellect, like such great classic horror films as 'The Exorcist' or 'Rosemary's Baby.' Still, as a mood piece, 'Constantine' has its moments, and it sure is a lot of fun.
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and encoded at 1080p, 'Constantine' ranks up there with the best-looking HD DVD releases I've seen so far on the format. This is an excellent presentation, with the kind of striking picture that easily makes it top demo material for any home theater.
I can only hurl superlatives at 'Constantine.' The print appears as perfect as is possible, with not a defect or blemish to be found. Blacks are also rock solid, contrast excellent and detail superb even in the darkest scenes. Many recent HD DVD releases, such as 'Doom,' suffered for me because they appeared a tad too dark. But while 'Constantine' is a movie with a very grim milieu, shadow delineation is never less than stellar, with fine details visible even in the most dimly-lit corners of the frame.
I was also impressed with the level of three-dimensionality to the image -- it really feels like you can reach out and touch the screen at times. And this despite the image having been obviously tweaked with the aid of computer technology. Sure, colors have that painted-on look that untouched film-based transfers can't produce naturally, but it is all so clean and smooth it is hard to complain. This transfer also expertly reproduces the most difficult hues, especially deep reds, which are free of noise and smearing.
If I have any complaint, it is that the action scenes that take place in the film's alternate hell reality are almost entirely computer generated, which gives them a slightly softer appearance than the real-world scenes. Perhaps it is all that artificial motion-blur they add to the computer-generated characters, but oftentimes shots that are primarily CGI appear a bit flatter and less defined. Still, a minor nitpick. Otherwise, 'Constantine' looks superb on HD DVD.
'Constantine' is only the fourth HD DVD title I've reviewed so far that includes a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack (along with 'Training Day,' 'The Phantom of the Opera' and 'The Perfect Storm'), and though it is yet another humongous-budget Hollywood spectacle with reference-quality sound design, it is still hard not to throw superlatives at the nascent audio format. Really, I'm getting so spoiled with the quality of these early TrueHD tracks that quite frankly I'm going to be disappointed if the studios don't start including them on every single HD DVD title they release.
First, a few notes about Dolby TrueHD. If you are unfamiliar with the format, visit my recent Spotlight report on what exactly it is and how you can upgrade your player to hear it. Second, in regards to this comparison, I decided to skip HDMI and use the analog outputs on my Toshiba HD-XA1 and feed them directly into my receiver's analog inputs. I'm currently using the Denon AVR-1803 A/V Dolby Digital/DTS Surround Processor, but I also invested in a new Panasonic SA-XR57S Home Theater Receiver just this past week. Probably the cheapest consumer receiver currently on the market that can give you Dolby TrueHD, the Panasonic is a solid little deck that gave me an idea of how the format also sounds on the kind of equipment that is more likely within reach of the average consumer. Finally, regardless of what type of receiver you are using or how you are connecting it, be absolutely sure to visit the "Setup" menu of your Toshiba HD DVD player and set the "Dialogue Enhancement" feature to "Off." If you don't, it will pretty much ruin the Dolby TrueHD experience, and the only way to really hear the format in all its glory is without any artificial processing enabled in your audio chain.
Alrighty, now back to 'Constantine.' The film benefits from very aggressive sound design, which expertly utilizes all five speakers for some truly immersive audio trickery. As there is never more than a few minutes of downtime between the film's action sequences, the rear channels are almost constantly engaged with both pronounced and subtle effects bouncing around all over the place. I thought imaging was almost totally transparent on the Dolby Digital-Plus track, but it is even better on the TrueHD mix. There were a few scenes, such as during Keanu Reeves' first trip to the underground nightclub/lair of Midnite (Djimon Hounsou) where I simply could not locate exactly where certain sounds were coming from. A later attack by flying winged demons on Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz was also a strong example of what TrueHD is capable of, with the whirling monster noises filling up the rear soundfield much more impressively than on the Dolby Digital-Plus track.
Dynamic range also excels on both the TrueHD and Dolby Digital-Plus tracks, but again the former is little bit better. Reproduction of the mid- and high-ranges almost makes the TrueHD mix feel tangible. Dialogue reproduction is clear and distinct, and well-placed in the center channel despite all the bombast surrounding it. Though I would have liked the spoken word to have been balanced a tad bit higher in the mix -- a problem that none of the TrueHD tracks I've heard so far has improved upon -- but at least 'Constantine' is better at juggling quiet and loud passages effectively than most of the other big action soundtracks I've heard on HD DVD. Low bass is also terrific on both tracks, if stronger and cleaner in Dolby TrueHD, with the intense LFE frequencies never breaking up due to audible distortion or other anomalies. Chalk up another winner for TrueHD.
Porting over all of the extras from the two-disc Deluxe Edition DVD of 'Constantine' released last year, this disc is so loaded with supplements that when that little Special Features overlay pops up from the HD-DVD main menu it covers the whole screen. And though I can't say quantity is always equal to quality, in this case I can't imagine any fan feeling shortsighted after sitting through the hours of material here. (The only extra that has been dropped from this HD DVD release appears to be the 48-page reproduction of the graphic novel which was included as part of the Deluxe Edition set.)
Kicking things off are two audio commentaries, the first with director Francis Lawrence and producer Akiva Goldsman, and the second with screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello. I would have just preferred to have them all edited into one single, more cohesive discussion, as the separate tracks often overlap with the same information. However, if you're a fan, there is no shortage of insight here -- just about every aspect of the making of the film is covered (twice), from adapting the graphic novel to pre-production to casting to visualizing the comic book-inspired world onto film. Another complaint is that sometimes all four participants sometimes regurgitate what is happening onscreen, which is always the kiss of death for an audio commentary. Still, these are pretty informative tracks.
Perhaps the heart of the extras are the no less than thirteen featurettes included, which combined run a total of nearly 90 minutes and make for a pretty comprehensive documentary on the making of 'Constantine.' The only annoyance is all that clicking required -- the standard DVD release nicely organized the featurettes into four subsections, but not here. They are can only be accessed manually, one at a time, which is a drag.
"Conjuring Constantine" (15:43) investigates the origins of the original 'Constantine' graphic novel, its development into a screenplay, and visualizing the character of Keanu Reeves. What was called "The Production From Hell" on the standard DVD is separated here into "Director Confessional" (5:35) which reveals a rather open Lawrence discussing his fears as a first-time director; "Collision with Evil" (4:39) with Lawrence dissecting the film's opening exorcism scene; and "Holy Relics" (8:22), a visit with propmaster Kirk Corwin who gives us a tour of all the nifty artifacts seen in the film. The next subsection on the standard DVD was "Imagining the Underworld," here divided into "Hellscape" (11:59), which examines the film's many visual effects with team leaders Michael Fink and Craig Hayes; the perfectly-titled "Visualizing Vermin" (9:36) on how the crew created the film's icky "insect monster" seen early in the film; "Warriors Wings" (3:18), a short look at how realistic wings were created for the film's CGI demons; and "Unholy Abduction" (5:47), which analyzes the grand scene where Angela is stolen out of an office building. Rounding out the featurettes are "Constantine Cosmology" (5:21), a visit with author Phil Cousineau, who discusses our society's need for mythic heroes, and finally "Foresight: The Power of Pre-Visualization" (13:56), which features several animatic-to-live action comparisons all with optional commentary by Lawrence.
Next up are no less than fourteen Deleted Scenes that run a total of 17 minutes. Many are just quick scene extensions, and others only fairly extraneous characters bits. However, three of the scenes are of particular interest, as they feature a character that was completely snipped out of the final cut. A rather foxy demon, I imagine fans of the graphic novels would have enjoyed her presence in the finished film, but then she doesn't really affect the narrative (and the film is already long enough) so I can see why they excised her out. Also included is an alternate ending, but I didn't find it particularly noteworthy.
Rounding out the extras are the film's theatrical and teaser trailers, both presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, and like all of the disc's supplements encoded at 480i. There is also a music video for the song "Passive" by A Perfect Circle, but it is pretty forgettable.
'Constantine' is not really a great horror film, nor is it a great action film. But it touches on some interesting themes, boasts an A-list cast and is certainly a handsomely-mounted production. I also bet fans of the graphic novel will probably like it, so it is not hard to recommend this HD DVD to the faithful. With a great transfer, terrific Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and tons of extras, the exclusive "In-Movie Experience" HD bonus feature is only icing on the cake. This is definitely one worth considering for a purchase, if only to show off that new HD DVD rig to all of your friends.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.