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Constantine Was Rated R Mostly Because It Was Moody

From 2005's Constantine.
From 2005's Constantine.
Image: Warner Bros.

Constantine, the 2005 Keanu Reeves-starring adaptation of the Vertigo Comic, had a rough go of it at first. Though it’s a cult favorite now, it didn’t do especially well at release, partially due to the fact that it transgressed a boundary that most comic book films still refuse to cross: it was rated R, limiting its exposure to the teenage demographic that’s still incredibly vital to selling any comic book film. But, as it turns out, the creators tried to hit that PG-13 benchmark. They really did.

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Today, Reeves, director Francis Lawrence, and producer Akiva Goldsman reunited for a panel commemorating Constantine’s 15th anniversary, hosted by Collider’s Steven Weintraub. It’s a delightful panel (you can watch it in full below), and not just because Reeves is there with his perfect, beautiful eyes; everyone involved has a clear love for this film and dishes a lot of intriguing behind the scenes details. Like, about that R? It was out of their hands.

“Originally when we all started on this we thought it would be a rated-R film,” Francis Lawrence said. “Warner then dictated that it had to be PG-13 because of what it cost. We got the list of guidelines of what you can and can’t do in a PG-13 movie and we followed those rules to a T.”

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Those informal but reliable rules—including how many and what types of profanity a film can use, how much gore is allowed, etc—were a blueprint during production. But when it came time for the MPAA raters to sit down and watch the film, the rules suddenly became a lot less important.

“I remember hearing that they got about five minutes in and put their notepads down,” Lawrence said. “They said we got a hard R for ‘tone.’ This is not something that’s on the list. But, basically, there was an overwhelming sense of dread, was what I heard, from the opening scene on. And they didn’t think there was anything we could do about it.”

So Constantine, a film which struggled so valiantly to stay inside its prescribed ratings guidelines, fell outside of them because it was just... sort of moody?

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“There’s a weird subset of religious horror that seems to get an R much more quickly,” Akiva Goldsman, producer on the film, added. “What you learn is that despite the fact that there are guidelines, it’s a purely subjective interpretation. And that subjectivity ebbs and flows based on the group that is designating the rating. But we have a lot of demons. Demons seem, for some reason, to trigger an R rating.”

Ah! A demonic curse, then. Certainly that’s something Constantine as a character can understand. For Lawrence’s part, he was just disappointed that he never got a chance to make a version of the film that leaned into its own darkness and went after the R it would end up getting anyway, despite the production’s protests.

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“We got a bit screwed on that front,” Lawrence said.


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io9 Weekend Editor. Videogame writer at other places. Queer nerd girl.

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DISCUSSION

alliterator85
alliterator

Constantine is a really good movie. It’s just that the main character isn’t John Constantine. He’s some dude who is named “Constantine,” but has almost none of the actual characteristics of the comic book Constantine. Which, again, doesn’t make the movie or the character bad — hell, this is one of Keanu’s better roles, because his entire “emotionless cynicism” vibe works for it. I love watching him just sitting down and trapping a cockroach underneath a glass and then blowing smoke into the glass. I love his interactions with Rachel Weisz’s character. “I’m thinking.” I love the movie’s interpretation of Hell and I love both Tilda Swinton as the Archangel Michael and Peter Stormare as the First of the Fallen.

There are only two issues I have with the film:

  • Shia LeBeouf as Chas. Please god no. (Also, they violate their own continuity to turn him into an angel, wtf?)
  • The ending where Constantine starts chewing gum. He should have gone back to smoking, confident that he had more time now. (Hell, Legends of Tomorrow got this right when they had their Constantine trying to light up a cigarette as he was dying of lung cancer.)