Finding danger on the other side of the pond.
Note: this is a mostly spoiler-free review of the movie version of Constantine: City of Demons, which is available now in both Digital HD format and on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray.
NBC may have canceled Constantine after one brief season, but Matt Ryan’s version of the treacherous occultist has taken on a healthy second life elsewhere. Not only will Ryan be reprising the role as a series regular in the fourth season of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, he’s also the star of DC’s latest direct-to-video animated movie, Constantine: City of Demons. Whether in live-action or animation, Ryan continues to do justice to this iconic anti-hero.
City of Demons saw partial release earlier this year on the CW Seed streaming platform (you can check out my review of those initial five episodes here). For whatever reason, The CW never finished the story in that format, opting instead to release the entire series as an animated movie. While City of Demons is a slightly tougher sell when fans are being asked to pay actual money, it’s still a worthwhile diversion for fans of the character. It’s certainly a much more faithful adaptation of the source material than that *other* Constantine movie. And if you’d rather not fork over the $20, the series will also be broadcast on The CW on October 15 as “Constantine: The Legend Continues.”
City of Demons is technically a spinoff of 2017’s Justice League Dark movie, though apart from Ryan voicing John Constantine again there’s not much in the way of direct connective tissue between the two projects. The intent seems to be to craft a standalone movie that could just as easily work as an extension of either the NBC series or the Arrowverse shows (even if the continuity doesn’t really line up in the case of the former). Writer J.M. DeMatteis draws heavy inspiration from the 2005 graphic novel Hellblazer: All His Engines. Here, Constantine is forced to reconnect with his estranged friend Chas (Damian O’Hare) in order to rescue Chas’ daughter Tricia from a demon-induced coma. The key to saving her soul rests not in Constantine’s familiar haunt of London, but instead glitzy Los Angeles.
Fortunately, City of Demons isn’t negatively impacted by the shift from serialized chapters to standalone film. If anything, it flows better as one, continuous story with no arbitrary breaks. The first act unfolds pretty much exactly as the CW Seed version, albeit with some added shots of violence and sexual imagery thrown in. Like many of DC’s recent direct-to-video animated movies, City of Demons isn’t shy about flaunting its R-rating. And in this case, why should it? If any DC character invites the mature audience approach, it’s John Constantine.
City of Demons’ greatest strength is definitely Constantine himself. Ryan bring the right blend of cynicism, weary resignation and mischief to the role. Ryan is the definite standout in terms of vocal performance, though O’Hare is solidly dependable as Chas. DeMatteis’ screenplay hits on many familiar but effective notes from the comics. The movie portrays Constantine as ultimately good at heart, but also someone whose reckless, self-serving behavior leaves little but destruction in his wake. That plays directly into the Constantine/Chas dynamic, with the former being drawn back into his friend’s orbit despite his better judgment. If anything, it would have been nice to see more focus on Constantine and Chas’ younger days. The brief flashbacks and allusions don’t do quite enough to flesh out their relationship.
The plot has plenty of urgency, with both men racing against the clock and forging a reluctant pact with demon/Hollywood power player Beroul (Jim Meskimen). As with a lot of great Constantine stories, the film portrays its lead as a man sorely outclassed in terms of power and scraping by mainly on his ability to improvise and play his enemies against one another. This does cause the plot to drag a bit in the middle act. City of Demons spends a lot of time cycling through one supernatural antagonist after another, with the result being that Constantine and Chas start to feel like passive participants in their own story.
However, the conflict gathers steam again by the time the climax rolls around. There’s a strong payoff to Constantine’s supernatural scheming. If anything, the ending is an area where City of Demons improves upon the comic book source material. There are significant consequences for Constantine’s trickery. In that way, City of Demons serves as a strong example for Legends of Tomorrow as Ryan’s character become a more integral player on that series.
Apart from the sluggish middle act, the only real flaw to be found in City of Demons is the animation quality. The film sticks to the same established style as most of DC’s animated movies. It gets the job done, but the aesthetic is also too clean and polished for a story set in the darker side of the DC Universe. Constantine himself isn’t grungy enough, and his demonic enemies aren’t as visually intimidating as they should be. There also tends to be a static quality to the way action and character movement are handled. For instance, a flashback to Constantine and Chas’ punk rock days is rendered almost comical by the sheer lack of energy and intensity in their movements. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering what could be accomplished on these animated movies with a larger budget.