For a frequently nonsensical supernatural action flick, Constantine at least gets in touch with its metaphysical side. The loose adaptation of DC Comics' Hellblazer fumbles with some intriguing spiritual notions, but never seizes our imagination. Despite showing a hero who clashes with demons and angels, Constantine lacks soul.
Keanu Reeves plays John Constantine, a kind of freelance exorcist working in Los Angeles with some unique motivations beyond doing good deeds. In his teen years, he suffered from visions of demons living among humankind until he attempted suicide. As per Catholic dogma, suicides go straight to hell, and young Constantine endured a two-minute but seemingly eternal taste of damnation before the paramedics revived him.
Now, with hopes of avoiding that fate and getting on heaven's good side, he tracks renegade demons on Earth and "deports" them back to Hades. The angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) explains to him that, despite his impressive results in banishing demons to perdition, Constantine acts out of inherent selfishness and thus can't secure his salvation. He proves unsurprisingly bitter about the prospect of everlasting torment following his natural life span.
Constantine finds a chance at redemption when he meets Angela (Rachel Weisz), a police detective investigating the suspicious suicide of her institutionalized twin sister. Angela and her deceased sibling serve as pawns in a convoluted scheme involving a relic called the Spear of Destiny, which can bring about hell on Earth.
First-time director Francis Lawrence provides some exciting visual flourishes amid the de rigueur goth iconography. At one point, Constantine notices a crab scuttling by his feet on an L.A. street, then suddenly fends off a monster comprised of a swirling swarm of bugs, reptiles and creepy-crawlies. Several times he goes on missions to hell itself, which resembles Earth after an apocalypse. He stands in a normal, suburban neighborhood, then sees its infernal counterpart: scorched, windswept and teeming with misshapen demons.
The film tries hard to establish a potential franchise around Constantine and his monster-fighting milieu. Like James Bond's Q, a twitchy black marketeer (Max Baker) provides Constantine with occult gizmos and weapons, such as "Screech beetles from Amityville." The supporting actors have endearing goofiness, like Pruitt Taylor Vince as a sweaty priest who sees spooky visions. Swinton works her androgyny to make Gabriel play like a sinister version of Emma Thompson in Angels in America. But when Fargo's Peter Stormare shows up playing Lucifer as a Southern dandy, Constantine goes totally ga-ga.
Constantine could have survived such oddities with a more sharply drawn hero as the anchor, but the script Americanizes the role nearly out of existence. John Constantine originated almost 20 years ago as a blond, English, former punk rocker with a gift for sardonic understatement. (The role of Spike on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" served as an homage in both appearance and demeanor.) Constantine still chain-smokes, but now resembles a ghost-busting Dirty Harry, prone to terse dialogue and macho posturing. The approach provides a little incongruous humor when Constantine gives the finger to malignant entities.
But Reeves proves utterly miscast for this kind of thing. Reeves' screen presence has a kind of blankness, as if the studio found him in a box labeled "Generic Human." The flatness of his look and delivery works with deadpan comedy, or as a kind of awestruck counterpoint to the out-of-this-world events of the Matrix movies. But he merely makes Constantine an uncharismatic jerk whose toughness amounts to no more than empty poses and Eastwood impressions.
Even if you're familiar with the Hellblazer comic book, Constantine's confusing celestial rules and surplus characters can leave you bothered and bewildered. The script sets up plot threads, like Angela's knack for killing people in the line of duty, but leaves them dangling. Constantine simply tries to cram in too much "mythos" for a single film to support. A storyline involving lung cancer, rife with ramifications of impending mortality and the afterlife, gets drowned out in the noisy fight scenes.
Some satisfying action movie moments remain, such as Constantine's use of a set of brass knuckles, marked with crucifixes, to pound on a demon. But too many props and stunts - Constantine wielding a massive gun, Angela flying out of a high-rise office building - derive so blatantly from Reeves' earlier films that Constantine could just as easily been titled The Matrixorcist. The real John Constantine would call it an unholy load of bollocks.
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