I contend that Keanu Reeves’ 2005 movie “Constantine” can be taken as a prequel to his recent John Wick series. The idea struck me while watching John Wick 2, seeing parallels and thought it was worth writing down, despite “Constantine” being based on the “Hellblazer” comic books. (If your response is to say that it is canonically impossible for this to be true, congratulations, you don’t know how to sit back and have fun. And your knowledge of comics is awe-inspiring. And you’re the envy of all those around you. Meanwhile, let us have a good time, ok?) First, we’ll review the story of John Constantine, then the story of John Wick, and finally look at how they fit together as a continuous story.
IN THE BEGINNING, “Constantine” tells us the story of John Constantine, “a cynic with the ability to perceive and communicate with half-angels and half-demons in their true form.” (Wikipedia article) He seeks redemption for an earlier suicide attempt, a mortal sin condemning him to Hell. Knowing his death is quickly approaching due to lung cancer, he persists in his mission of exorcising demons in a bid to earn Heaven’s favor. After seeking a reprieve from Gabriel, he’s told that his work keeping the infernal legions at bay is done, ultimately, for selfish reasons and therefore will not earn him a pass to paradise.
At this point, Constantine is setup as the redemption-seeking hero, a common archetype we’ll see used in the John Wick mythology.
While continuing in his cause against Demon-kind, he uncovers (HEY IT’S ONE OF THE SPOILERS I WAS TELLING YOU ABOUT! NO MORE WARNINGS, FRIENDS!) Gabriel’s treachery of trying to unleash the hordes of Hell upon Earth, to rid the world of those he feels are “unworthy” of God’s adoration. In the final showdown, after seeking the intervention of Lucifer himself, Constantine is left nearly dead and before Lucifer can drag him to Hell, Heaven decides that his sacrifice was a selfless one, and points a celestial tractor beam at him, hauling him up to the pearly gates.
However, Lucifer has been waiting for decades to collect Constantine’s soul for his trophy case, so this won’t stand. Grabbing Constantine from the light, Lucifer heals Constantine’s wounds and excises the cancer from his lungs. While this might be the second chance Constantine wanted, Lucifer hedges his bets on Constantine screwing up in the end and inevitably ending up in the pit.
“Constantine” was a financial success with mixed reviews from critics. And who cares about critics, because it was a really fun time. While the fans of the movie have long-waited for a sequel, none of us realized we’d get it in the form of “John Wick.”
YEARS LATER, we’re given the story of “John Wick,” retired master assassin seeking revenge for (SPOILER ALERTS FROM HERE ON OUT ONLY BECAUSE I FREAKING CARE ABOUT YOU FOR SOME REASON) the death of his puppy, Daisy, at the hands of some Russian gangsters. I sound like I’m dumbing things down, but the beauty of the movie is that is literally what happens (there’s some nuance, but…yeah).
(Let me break here and say that “John Wick” spoke to me on a spiritual level: if someone killed my dog, I would lay waste to cities and salt the earth in my wake. There’d be no coming back. WE AS HUMANS ARE NOT DESERVING OF DOGGOS. Ok, ok, back to the thing…)
What we learn in the course of the movie—through narrative exposition—is that Wick retired after falling in love with a woman. Discussion of tropes aside, Wick seeks a reprieve from Russian crime lord Viggo Tarasov (whose son would go on to kill Wick’s dog, by the way), and receives “impossible task” to earn his way out. Wick defies the odds, completes the job, and earns his retirement.
After a lot (…a LOT…) of explosions and carnage, Wick gets his revenge by killing Tarasov and his son. Later, in the beginning of “John Wick: Chapter 2,” we find out that Wick then waged his war against the entire Tarasov crime family. He eventually makes his way to office of Abram Tarasov, Viggo’s brother, with whom he strikes a truce before leaving on his next adventure (which isn’t really relevant to our purposes here, but suffice to say it is a great time for all involved).
Now, knowing the basics of each story, how are they remotely connected? At least in my humble opinion?
Easy answer? they’re both named John. Duh. End of story.
Not so easy answer?
The idea of “Constantine” being a prequel smacked me in the face when I saw Peter Stormare playing the part of Abram Tarasov. At first, I thought it was awesome to see them on screen together in a similar dynamic, because Lucifer and Constantine’s exchange is one of my favorite scenes involving the devil (a real genre of favorites lists, I assure you). But when I got home, the idea kept nagging at me until I pulled my copies of “Constantine” and “John Wick” off the shelf and saw the covers had a remarkably similar composition.
Sure, that could be said of all movie covers and posters, because formulas work and whatever. But THEN I GOT TO THINKING…
We’re told in “John Wick” how Wick is nicknamed “Baba Yaga,” what Tarasov says is Russian for “the boogeyman,” but that he wasn’t actually the boogeyman, “he was who you sent to kill the fuckin’ boogeyman.” He wasn’t an assassin, he was the assassin. The best in the business. So, assuming some limits of real life apply to these fictional characters in SOME way, it would make sense that Wick might come up with some kind of internal coping mechanism to handle the stress of his work, the toll that that kind of slaughtering would invariably have on him.
What kind of coping mechanism? Rather than accepting the reality of killing countless human beings, perhaps Wick created a reality in which he was ridding the world of horrible monsters, demons from Hell itself, bent on annihilating humankind.
Perhaps Wick invented a world in his own mind in which he really killing boogeyman after boogeyman. (This isn’t that difficult to buy into, especially when you see Peter Stormare in “Chapter 2,” playing a different kind of devil from what he played in “Constantine,” which Wick’s fractured mind pieced together in its own twisted way.)
Both Constantine and Wick are heroes seeking a means to move on from their past lives in peace. They both sought reprieves from their respective powers that be, seeking paradise. While Constantine aimed for literal Paradise, Wick sought the paradise of growing old with the love of his life. Viewing Constantine as an internal character in Wick’s mind, Constantine’s pursuit of paradise syncs up pretty clearly with Wick’s real life goals.
Both Constantine and Wick are given impossible tasks—Constantine’s being earning Heaven’s forgiveness, and Wick’s being, uh, the murder of a lot of people, the details of which we don’t learn about until “Chapter 2.” Both men defy the odds, they do the impossible. They get their wishes.
Both Constantine’s and Wick’s forms of paradise are taken away from them prematurely. Constantine is brought back to life and has his lung cancer pulled from his body, while Wick is forced to watch Helen suffer and die from cancer (the type of which is left out of the story).
Here’s where you’ll have to just go along with me on this journey: After Helen’s death, Wick struggles to grieve, to move past his loss—despite the presence of sweet precious Daisy in his life—and we’re not told why the loss takes such a toll on Wick. Given that Wick had hardly any time in this life with the love he just lost—barely a husband and so quickly a widower—it’s easy to believe that Wick, somehow, blames himself for her death, that Helen was taken from him as punishment for his past deeds.
Wick created Constantine in his mind, and the cancer that was ripped from Constantine’s lungs, ripped paradise from both Wick and Constantine’s lives.
When Wick tells Viggo Tarasov the truth of what was stolen from him, he tells Tarasov, “People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer. But now, yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back.”
In the Constantine narrative, Lucifer tells him that he’s bound to repeat his sinful ways. He’s bound to repeat his mistakes.
He’s bound to come back.