'Constantine' Pilot Review: The Magic Sputters [Comic Con 2014]

John Constantine is a tough character to put on screen, and the Constantine pilot constantly struggles with finding its take on the character. Matt Ryan plays the Brit magician, whose business card bills him as a "master of the dark arts," in a way that demonstrates a clear idea of the character as a damaged but still cocky guy. That's well and good, and a pretty direct import of the character as often seen in comics.

But the show around Ryan isn't always so sure of itself. In fact, this pilot is frequently a bit of a mess, and even verges into incoherence. There are some logistical reasons for that latter point, but that doesn't change the fact that multiple points of this pilot are muddled and unclear. Anyone looking for a more faithful version of the character than seen in the 2005 film will have to wait for the show to really find itself, and I'm not certain new viewers will fare much better.

We begin in the Ravenscar Hospital in England, where John Constantine is taking a little time off. But soon a fellow patient ends up possessed by a demon, roaches crawl the hospital halls, and some ambitious visual effects get to sparkle on the screen. Dispelling the demon and roaches reveals a warning: a family friend is in danger. And so Constantine nips off to America to deal with it.

He arrives in Atlanta to help Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths), the daughter of a recently deceased friend. The young woman has been targeted by a demon that has a taste for electricity. Constantine can help, but there are problems with any possible plan. Primarily: the young lady has no idea who the old Brit is, and she's not all that interested in finding out. After a bit of convincing, helped along by another demon murder, and a visit to the home of the woman's late father, the two start working together to figure out what the demon is up to.

There's also Constantine's friend/wheelman Chas (Charles Halford), who drives a somewhat old-fashioned cab and helps out when trouble looms. Chas seemingly pilots that car from wherever he was right to Atlanta; the cab's appearance feels like a total non-sequitur. There are also a few appearances from Harold Perrineau as an angel named Manny.

Liv's late father, by the way, collected all manner of magical bits and bobs. His home is like a Hogwarts cottage. Within is an amulet that helps the girl see spirits, and that helps move the plot along, too. There's also a glowing gold helm — the helm of Doctor Fate — which doesn't actually factor into the story, but is included in every possible shot. Foreshadowing? Obviously... or maybe not, for reasons I'll get to in a moment.

If I were to choose one word to describe what John Constantine looks like, it would be "rumpled" — he should look like he sleeps folded up in the world's pocket. This version of the character has some of that feel, thanks to Matt Ryan's performance, but Ryan never quite seems to feel at ease with all of the script's eccentricities. His Constantine still feels too "new" to really get across the idea that this is a guy with a deep, ugly history, and who knows most of the people in the magical world.

The episode is torn between crafting ties between characters, and throwing out magical effects and tricks in time with the commercial breaks. Is this a CW-style show that will drop hackneyed team of almost-friends deal in a "monster of the week" plot, or a deeper, darker character-based series? It's impossible to tell right now. There are ambitions to make the latter concept happen, but no way to know if it'll work out. This pilot has no real rhythm, and no convincing sense of place. Though mostly shot in Atlanta, it often feels as if it takes place in Generic Whatevertown, USA. It's scattered. 

And while this will share a broadcast window with Hannibal, the pilot doesn't push many boundaries — as reported in the past, the character doesn't smoke, and the general feel is often of "safe" television, even when a reanimated corpse is on screen. I'd swear I heard Constantine call someone a c**t at one point, but the sound in the hall at Comic Con wasn't good enough to be certain. There are some straight-up lousy effects; when we see the demon who has been a problem for Constantine in the past, he looks '80s metal video cheap. This is a character, too, that should have a long-ranging effect on the series' storyline, and is debuted in a goof funhouse shot.

It's difficult to predict where the show is going to go from here. The end of the pilot awkwardly writes out Liv, as Lucy Griffiths quit before the show could go much further. Plans to bring in another character have already been put in motion, but this episode is so oriented around Liv, and getting her and Constantine together to go on magic-busting adventures, that the end of the pilot is abrupt and off-putting. There is potential in the show, and I can see Ryan really starting to gel with the scripts before too long. But that's not happening in this first installment.

Constantine is set to premiere Oct. 24 at 9/8c on NBC.