Saturday, October 25, 2014

Pilot Review: Constantine

Constantine (Fridays at 10:00 on NBC)

Just in case you didn't have your fill of comic book adaptations almost every other night of the week, NBC is here to remedy that situation by bringing the DC series Hellblazer to the small screen as Constantine. It's a late entry in the comic adaptation game (and in the fall season), and it's not an entirely successful one. But in terms of sheer enjoyability, this latest offering ranks high.

John Constantine has been brought to life once before, played by Keanu Reeves in the mostly-forgotten 2005 film which shares the new series' name. I know I saw the movie at some point, but I remember not a single thing about it, so I approached Constantine with fresh eyes (and an open mind, as I've never read any of the comics either). The pilot opens in moody style at an asylum where our titular hero (played with bravado by Welsh theatre actor Matt Ryan, who was previously a regular on the short-lived Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior) has voluntarily checked himself in for some light electroshock therapy. Seems John is trying to rid himself of the pain and memories of the parallel planes of existence he can see, ones where demons and angels exist. Something in his past led to John's soul being damned to Hell, so he wants to live out his remaining years in retirement from his former life as an occult detective, exorcist and "Master of the Dark Arts," as his business card reads. But when an old (dead) friend starts to communicate with him and begs a favor, John emerges from the asylum to protect a young woman who is just beginning to awaken similar powers in herself.

The central plot of Constantine is one we've seen time and time again, even if this one is based on one of the first iterations of such a story. It still feels a bit derivative in that television shows have been telling this story of "character who sees and fights dark forces in the world that no one else knows about" for years, including in the hour right before Constantine airs. Grimm has much the same type of feeling, a dark supernatural mythology peppered with witty characters, so Constantine is a good fit with it. But the way creators Daniel Cerone (Motive) and David S. Goyer (Da Vinci's Demons, The Dark Knight trilogy) have approached telling their story is a little scattershot. There's tons of action and mythological mumbojumbo, from demons to angels to Egyptian protective symbols, but there's not much of a coherent storyline. Even by the pilot's end, I still don't really know anything about John Constantine, like how or why he does what he does. The rules of life and death don't have much structure, with John's sidekick Chas (True Detective's Charles Halford) dying and resurrecting in this first hour and the spectre of deceased Jasper wandering through his former home, and the episode's end is awkward and abrupt. Apparently the series was going in one direction, with Liv joining John on his supernatural quests, but Goyer and Cerone decided to change that after the pilot was ordered to series, introducing a character from the comics who is a psychic artist.

But as a fun, Friday night show, Constantine delivers. The visual effects are pretty damn impressive, much more so than those in the first few episodes of The Flash, and the practical effects are just as cool. The action doesn't really stop here; we get lots of shattering windows, possessions, a fiery pit opening up in a parking lot, a rooftop battle to the death between spirit worlds, a couple of car crashes, and a whole lot more. The pace is breakneck, covering up some of the weaknesses in the writing with sheer awesomeness. It's hard to hate a show this friggin' cool, especially since that seems to be what Constantine is aiming for. Ryan is a magnetic, witty leading man that brings the perfect blend of humor, stubbly good looks, and dramatic weight to John Constantine. Harold Perrineau (Oz, Lost) is a really strange presence as Manny, an angel who speaks to John by temporarily possessing people (and freezing falling rain in place, in one of the most visually arresting scenes in the pilot), but his scenes fit the gloomy, mysterious tone created by Emmy-nominated Game of Thrones director Neil Marshall. The show is mostly great fun, a nice mix of Gothic atmosphere, creepy jolts, and humor. I just hope the writing improves, because even fun shows need to make sense.

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