By Greg Bellavia | February 19, 2005

NOTE: As a longtime reader of “Hellblazer,” I knew that reviewing the movie “Constantine” would require me to keep my love for the original material in perspective while judging the film on its own merits. Unfortunately, I’m not that good a writer, so the only way to reconcile my appreciation of the movie with my disbelief at what’s been done to one of my favorite comic book characters was to write two reviews. This one (mostly) ignores the source material and rates the film as a stand-alone horror movie. It should be read first.

The comic book movies just keep coming, as DC primes the pump for the upcoming release of “Batman Begins” with “Constantine.” Based on DC/Vertigo’s “Hellblazer” comic, it’s the story of one John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), blessed and/or cursed with the talent to “see” the half-breed angels and demons who roam the earth attempting to influence humanity. This ability caused him to attempt suicide as a young man, and though he was eventually resuscitated, the fact that he was clinically dead for a time means – according to the resolute and unalterable dogma of the Roman Catholic Church (the only religion that counts, at least in the movies) – he’s going to Hell. Still hoping to finagle his way into Heaven, Constantine now acts as a kind of holy INS agent, “deporting” half-breed demons back to the infernal regions when they step out of line.

His quest for redemption has taken on a new sense of urgency, for our hero has just discovered he has terminal lung cancer. Constantine’s efforts at obtaining a “reprieve” from the archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) are rebuffed, and while he’s stewing over that, he’s approached by LAPD detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz). Dodson wants Constantine to help investigate her sister’s apparent suicide, which she is convinced was anything but.

Oh, and someone found the Spear of Destiny in Mexico and is using it as a conduit for the arrival of the son of Satan. Mustn’t forget that.

Internal cohesion is not “Constantine’s” strong point (If angels and demons are forbidden from coming to earth, what the hell is Gabriel doing here? Why is Longinus’ spear in Mexico?), and neither is characterization (where would the Cynical Anti-Hero be without his Plucky Sidekick and a Gadget Guy?). Some things that work in its favor are an appropriately creepy atmosphere, decent CGI, and a striking depiction of Hell, right down to a scene that could’ve been lifted from a Bosch painting. Director Francis Lawrence creates a nice horror setting and refreshingly leaves quite a bit to the imagination, it’s just too bad everything else feels cadged from other films (I was waiting for “The power of Christ compels you!” to burst from Reeves during the initial exorcism scene).

The acting is hit or miss. Weisz is effective at projecting skepticism and, eventually, dawning horror (and the writers must have a thing for seeing her soaking wet, as she’s subjected to full immersion no less than six times), while Djimon Hounsou makes the most of a small role as Papa Midnite. Peter Stormare is also enjoyable, if criminally underutilized, in a gleefully nasty appearance as the Adversary himself.

The film, unfortunately, hinges on Reeves’ performance, and he just can’t pull it off. This isn’t The Matrix, where a dazed countenance can be mistaken for incredulity. John Constantine is supposedly a world-weary cynic, unsentimental and aloof thanks to his years of demon busting, but Reeves seems incapable of projecting this. He manages well enough during the fight scenes, and had “Constantine” been more of a straight-up action picture, this would be sufficient. Horror seems out of his league, sadly.

And he looks remarkably hale for a guy who we’re told has been smoking a pack-and-a-half a day for 15 years and is currently dying of lung cancer.

That said, the film (barely) succeeds, thanks to impressive visuals, the idea of an uncaring God wagering with Satan for souls, and two immensely enjoyable scenes (one with Weisz, one with Stormare) in which Reeves actually plays his character as the cynical a*****e he really is. All of these come together to make “Constantine” slightly better than your run-of-the-mill late winter horror film.

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  1. Emile says:

    It’s got Peter Stormare as the Devil. ‘Nuff said.

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