When Warner Bros. screened the full "Constantine" pilot for a packed room at Comic-Con International 2014, and the reaction was enthusiastic -- and understandably so. The focus on building leading man Matt Ryan as John Constantine paid off in a big way. Easily the highlight of the introductory episode, Ryan is Constantine in every sense -- except for the lack of smoking. But even without a Silk cut in his mouth, he still plays with a lighter during the course of the episode.
Perhaps it's Ryan's stellar performance that makes it disappointing the pilot fell just short of being great. Make no mistake, the first episode is good -- very good, even -- but not perfect. However, despite being an uneven episode of television, the pilot does succeed in providing a solid launching-off point for the series as whole and introduces some excellent concepts to the world of television -- and fans of the character will be glad to hear that it's much more "Hellblazer" than it is New 52.
The episode opens with John Constantine checking himself in to a mental institution after a job gone wrong. A lot of episode time is devoted to Constantine -- and other characters -- referring to the Newcastle Job, which damned a 9-year-old girl to hell for all eternity. During the introduction, Ryan really sells the idea of what a real-life Constantine would be. He has the world-weary look, the voice and the self-loathing swagger evident in issues of "Hellblazer." It's when Liv is introduced as a foil for Constantine that the pilot starts to slow down, and not in a good way.
The first act is understandably slow, as it needs to introduce all the characters and concepts before digging into the actual story. However, it really, really takes its time in attempting to establish Liv, even going so far as to present a completely superfluous scene with the character's mother. While Lucy Griffiths is certainly a capable actress, she's not given much to work with here other than play the amazed, not-very-knowledgable sidekick able to do little more than gawk at the supernatural. There's definitely a place for that sort of character, but "Constantine" is sorely in need of someone who can go toe-to-toe with the Hellblazer -- both in terms of power and conversation. The same could be said of Manny, the angel played by Harold Perrineau, though Perrineau really sells the idea of his character's powers as he steps into other people's bodies.
Part of the problem with Liv and Manny is that they feel replaceable, either character easily able to be swapped out with another analogue while allowing the entire pilot to run its course just fine. That's not to say Griffiths and Perrineau's performances weren't solid -- they were -- but the characters don't feel unique and they slow down the first act of the pilot significantly as the script attempts to justify why these two characters are essential to the story beyond their roles as plot devices.
On the upside, Charles Halford absolutely nails his portrayal of Chas as a calming presence in the frenetic action sequences. Despite his huge frame, Halford is able to inject a gentleness to Chas -- Constantine's oldest living friend -- that really shines through, playing the voice of reason in a way that doesn't derail Constantine's antics, which is no small feat. Halford's presence helps to balance the pilot in the same way he helps to temper and guide John Constantine as a friend.
This pilot aired in San Diego bears some major differences from the version that leaked online, including an overhauled ending sequence. Ryan actually plays against himself, and proves how good an actor he is. In many ways, it demonstrates why he's so perfect for the role as he brings a full three dimensions to Constantine, hinting at the potential to develop the character over the course of a number of seasons, imbuing the mage with an arrogant confidence that is a breath of fresh air for a television protagonist.
Those following the news surrounding "Constantine" already know that some casting changes have been made since the first pilot made its rounds. Griffiths -- and Liv -- have been written out of the show, replaced by Angelica Celaya as Zed Martin. The way the team ended up writing out Liv was a clever bit of editing, and it's easy to see how everything up to that point could have gone a different way.
Overall, the "Constantine" pilot is a good example of what a first episode needs to do: It establishes the lead character's world, presents a compelling protagonist and gives a decent reason for viewers to tune in for the next episode. While the pilot has its share of pacing issues, it's solid and well worth watching, if only to see how Matt Ryan completely nails the character of John Constantine. Hopefully, the other issues the pilot had will improve in the second episode; at the very least, it will be an interesting ride to see where the series takes the character.