John Constantine’s smoking evolution — 1988-2014

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Lucifer (Peter Stormare), gives John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) a light.

Smoking might be taken away from Wolverine soon, but there’s a precedent. Smoking has already been taken away from a comic book legend — John Constantine.

Several years ago on a blog far away (that blog is long gone; I abandoned it about six years ago), I wrote a piece about “Constantine” and smoking. “Constantine” was and probably still is the most patently anti-smoking movie to ever come out of Hollywood. “Constantine” was a total Keanu Reeves vehicle and it was released in 2005, coming right after the end of “The Matrix” triology.

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Constantine gives a spider a smoke bath

 

It wasn’t a particularly good movie (it gets a 46 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes), it was a total rip-off of “The Matrix”, it made a fair amount of money ($200 million worldwide), but was not a huge hit and it completely pissed off loyal “Hellblazer” readers because it changed everything about John Constantine. In the comic book series, Constantine was blond, British and cocky. In the film, he was dark-haired, American and sullen.

And all that being said, looking back on the movie 10 years later, I think “Constantine” was arguably the most influential movie ever for changing the culture of smoking in Hollywood. “Constantine” came out roughly the same time as “Stranger than Fiction,” another anti-smoking Hollywood movie.

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Remember the time — 2005. At the time, smoking was rampant in Hollywood films. Not just R-rated movies, but PG-13 movies marketed to teens and even PG- and G-rated movies marketed to kids. Hollywood had a long, sordid history of promoting tobacco products, for decades for free, and then beginning with Superman II, for a price. Hollywood, every bit as much as Madison Avenue, promoted smoking as cool, suave and hip going all the way back to the early 1930s.

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John Constantine in the comic books.

 

Even after payments between Big Tobacco and Hollywood studios supposedly came to a halt after the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, movies continued to show smoking as cool, suave and hip. Hollywood didn’t get a nickel for 50 years to promote tobacco products, made millions from Big Tobacco for about 18 years and amazingly, mystifyingly, even after those payments were supposedly stopped, Hollywood STILL just kept giving the tobacco industry all kinds of free advertising in movies marketed to teens.

 

I was part of a huge push to get an R-rating for smoking in movies. A push that I think has mostly succeeded, though it was a bloody fight. Hollywood resented us do-gooders, even though it was perfectly cool with R ratings for more than one F-bomb, the slightest glimpse of full-frontal nudity and ANY drug use, even someone just rolling a joint. But take away cigarettes from PG-13 movies? CENSORSHIP! R ratings are not set in stone for smoking, but the campaign has discouraged studios from having smoking scenes in PG-13 and PG movies.

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Along came “Constantine” and “Stranger Than Fiction.” I watched “Constantine” again this weekend on satellite, and I was reminded of what a genuinely groundbreaking film this was. It wasn’t popular at the time, it pissed off “Hellblazer” fans, and the anti-smoking message feels like a forced and trite plot point, but dammit, this was the first movie I ever saw that came right out and said, “smoking sucks.”

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“Constantine,” released in 2005, was the most anti-smoking movie ever made

 

I went to see this movie in the theatre and despite the mixed reviews, I loved it. Maybe because of the anti-smoking message. I didn’t know much about the “Hellblazer” comic book series, and if I had known much about it, I probably would’ve hated the movie. Anyway, “Constantine” was surprisingly pretty scary and Peter Stormare and Tilda Swinton  were amazing as Lucifer and the Archangel Gabriel, respectively. Stormare played the most terrifying Satan I’ve ever seen (as I said, “Constantine” is a surprisingly scary movie), with tattoos, a lisp and wearing a white suit with black oil dripping off his bare feet. Keanu Reeves was badly miscast and more or less played the movie as Neo from “The Matrix.”

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Lucifer rips the lung cancer out of John Constantine’s body — ewww!

 

Most movies about the Devil and the Apocalypse and religious drivel are hopelessly dopey (I mean go watch “The Omen” again sometime and you’ll be reminded just how stupid and ridiculous that movie was) and compared to other films of the genre, “Constantine” was not as dopey as most — despite Shia Lebouf’s painfully bad role in the movie. The plot is similar to “The Prophecy,” which is another Apocalypse religious hokum movie I can actually stomach, mostly because the Devil is simply a spectator and the real bad guy is the Archangel Gabriel (again) and Christopher Walken is amazing as Gabriel. His greatest role by far.

Lucifer arrives in “Constantine”

Anyway, in the comic book series “Hellblazer,” which began in the late 1980s, John Constantine was portrayed as a gruff, chain-smoking Brit. At one point in the series, he was dying of lung cancer until he made a deal with two demons for his soul to save his life (the demons couldn’t let him die because they were rivals).

The film “Constantine” took a different twist. Constantine was dying of lung cancer, but he explicitly blamed the cigarettes for his condition. In one scene, he traps a spider under glass and blows smoke under the glass, telling the spider, “welcome to my world.” Later in the film, Constantine commits suicide to make a deal with the devil and in the absolute best line of the entire movie, Constantine asks Lucifer, “do you mind if I smoke?” and the Devil responds, “no, go right ahead. I’ve got stock.” Awesome line!

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In the 2014 “Constantine” TV show, John Constantine is blond and British, but does not smoke at all.

 

In the end, Constantine is allowed to go to Heaven because he sacrificed himself by committing suicide to save someone else. Not wanting to let Constantine go, Lucifer rips the lung cancer out of Constantine’s body to give him a lifetime of chances to screw up so he can someday collect his soul. The film concludes with Constantine seemingly reaching into his trenchcoat pocket for a cigarette, but instead pulling out a stick of gum. Awesome. I loved it. Trite, beating people over the head with the anti-smoking message, but I loved it.

In “Stranger than Fiction,” a character played by Emma Thompson was originally written as a chain-smoker. However, the producer of the film Lindsey Doran hated smoking and hated smoking in movies. After battling with the director, they agreed on a compromise, Thompson’s character would still smoke, but it would be portrayed in a negative manner. Sure enough, throughout the movie Thompson’s character continually has to grab tissues as she coughs up gobs of phlegm. Gross and disgusting. Her assistant, played by Queen Latifah, begs Thompson’s character to quit smoking throughout the film and at the end of the movie, Latifah leaves a pack a nicotine gum on Thompson’s desk.

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Not-so-glamorous smoking in “Stranger Than Fiction.” Note the wadded-up tissue of phlegm.

 

I honestly feel those two movies are when the tide began to turn against smoking in movies. That’s why, despite its many, many, many flaws, I will always have a soft spot for “Constantine.”

As an aside, this past year, there was a “Constantine” TV show on NBC. They completely took John Constantine’s smoking out; banished completely. That’s how far the issue has come. Constantine was blond, wise-cracking and British like he was supposed to be, but they didn’t even bother making his smoking a part of the character or a plot point, they just simply dumped it as unnecessary and a relic of the past. The show only lasted 13 episodes and likely isn’t coming back. However, a “Constantine” sequel has been planned by Guillermo del Toro. It was be interesting to see if they make it if they will bring back John Constantine’s smoking.

 Epilogue of “Stranger than Fiction”

 “Constantine” 2014 TV series

 

 

 

One thought on “John Constantine’s smoking evolution — 1988-2014”

  1. Cool! I will have to watch Constantine again. Been awhile since I last saw it.
    Hollyweird still thinks actors and actresses look sexier if they smoke. The more things change, the more they stay the same it seems.

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