Sunday, October 26, 2014

DAMN Good Television -- CONSTANTINE: "Non Est Asylum"

Once upon a time in 2005, fans of the DC Comics/VERTIGO series Hellblazer suffered through Keanu Reeves as a blasphemous Americanized version of British occult detective/magician John Constantine.  The film Constantine, directed by Francis Lawrence, introduced mainstream America to the character and despite Reeves' matching black hair and black trenchcoat, was actually a decent R-rated movie that did pretty well at the box office.
When news of a new Constantine television series was announced last September, fans were understandably skeptical.  Adapting a mature readers comic book series like Hellblazer on NBC, of all places, seemed like a pretty bad idea considering current network television standards.  And sure enough, some of those antiquated network standards prohibit showing a chain-smoking character actually smoking while scenes of extreme violence and gore are perfectly fine, as anyone who has seen NBC's wonderful series Hannibal can attest.  However, the producers remain firm that Constantine is indeed a smoker, so you'll see him playing with his lighter or stubbing out a cigarette now and then as a workaround.

This first episode, written by Batman Begins and Blade writer David S. Goyer and showrunner Daniel Cerone opens with Constantine (Matt Ryan) voluntarily receiving electroshock treatment as a patient of the Ravenscar Psychiatric Facility for the Mentally Deranged.  We quickly learn that he's receiving therapy for a past traumatic event taken straight from the comics, involving a 9-year-old girl named Astra Logue.  This Newcastle incident, we later find out, involved Constantine and a group of friends attempting to save Astra from possession by calling up a more powerful demon named Nergal, only to have Nergal drag Astra into Hell after dismembering her.

Noticing a strange group of cockroaches, Constantine follows the trail to a possessed female patient.  Swiftly exorcising the unrevealed demon, the cockroaches reveal the words "Liv Die" on a nearby wall, which forces him to check himself out of the facility.  He soon finds a young woman named Liv Aberdeen (True Blood's Lucy Griffiths) at a car rental facility in Atlanta, Georgia, who seems understandably freaked by parking lot pavement caving itself into a giant pit just before Constantine shows up in yellow taxi cab.

Right out of the gate, Ryan already seems to have a better grasp of John Constantine than Reeves did, playing him as cheeky and a bit arrogant while masking his personal pain and inner demons (no pun intended).  Because this is the pilot episode, Constantine tends to deliver a lot of exposition to explain what's going on, helped by Liv, whose sole purpose here is to ask what's going on, as any good companion on Doctor Who has done for the past fifty years.

We're soon introduced to Manny (Lost's Harold Perrineau), presumably an angel sent from Heaven to drop ominous plot point teases on Constantine and get him to investigate whatever demonic force is on the way.  And then we meet Chas Chandler (Charles Halford), Constantine's best mate and driver of said taxi cab that crashes immediately Social Distortion's cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" plays on the radio.  After getting out of the cab, Chas gets a live power cable through the chest (Hey, it happens), but we soon learn that Chas apparently has the ability to heal from fatal injuries.  Somehow.

Constantine takes Liv to her father's secretly secret mill house in the middle of the woods, which apparently stores a number of powerful mystical artifacts/easter eggs, including the Helm of Nabu which belongs to the DC Comics sorcerer Doctor Fate.  This seems to blatantly hint that the supernatural corners of the DC Universe after definitely in play, opening up the series to possible appearances by Swamp Thing, Constantine's ex-girlfriend Zatanna, Deadman, the Phantom Stranger, Doctor Occult, you name it.  Since we know that Emmett Scanlan has been cast as Jim Corrigan, it shouldn't be too long before The Spectre rises as well.

As the episode progresses, we also meet Ritchie Simpson (played by the terrific Jeremy Davies, another Lost veteran) who was one of Constantine's mysterious Newcastle crew from back in the day and now serves as the expert hacker every show seems to need these days.  Constantine asks Ritchie to hack Atlanta's power grid as part of the big masterplan to deal with Furcifer, the electrical demon messing with Liv.  Viewers unfamiliar with Hellblazer will get the feeling that Constantine burns through friends and allies like pawns on a chessboard, using them as necessary tools that often can be sacrificed in his crusade against the forces of Hell.

After Furcifer is dealt with rather effectively with an impressive visual effects display, Liv is quickly written out of the series due to a change in creative direction after the pilot was filmed and in her place arrives Zed Martin (Angelica Celaya), another character straight from the Jamie Delano run of Hellblazer.  Zed is only teased in the final moments, as we see her drawing (or is that channeling?) various images of John Constantine that come off as a lovely tribute to various Hellblazer comic artists.

All in all, Constantine seems like a series full of potential, even though this pilot episode often feels rushed and cramped with information and backstory.  Some Hellblazer fans may remain bitter about the show being on NBC instead of HBO or Showtime, but it's more than obvious that the showrunners are trying to incorporate as many elements from the comics as possible and that they're already using some of the best material.  So if you're still on the fence about this series, grab yourself a pint, sit down, give it a try for a few episodes and see if it grabs you.  Just hopefully, not into Hell...

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