Keanu Reeves is caught between heaven and hell in "Constantine," his latest epic fantasy/science-fiction thriller, but, though the story is potentially fascinating and the visuals sometimes spellbinding, the movie itself is stranded in the purgatory of the second-rate.
Reeves plays a character who can see the demons most of us miss and who, appropriately, has already been to hell and back after a failed suicide attempt. That talent makes him a perfect spotter and foe of the "half-breed" devils among us and also a man himself on the edge of dooma compulsive chain-smoker dying of lung cancerin search of some redemption. (By battling hell, he earns points in heaven.) Yet, constantly dour and ceaselessly courageous, Constantine drifts through the movie's L.A. in a kind of pseudo-noir funk, interspersed with bursts of heroic energy.
Into Constantine's glum, menace-filled life comes a daring lady cop, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), whose twin sister, Isabel (also played by Weisz), recently killed herself in a spectacular hospital roof-dive. Soon, he and Angela are joined in a full-scale afterlife war against the forces of evil. Also involved are a typically colorful crew: gangster/witch doctor Midnite (a throw-away part for Djimon Hounsou), feverish drunken priest Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince, sweating and suffering), the unpredictable Angel Gabriel (the angelic Tilda Swinton) and eventually, Satan himself (played by Peter Stormare, the great Swedish heavy you'll remember best from "Fargo").
That's a fine cast, but the movie isn't worthy of them, nor of its sometimes provocative premise. Reeves' Constantine, it seems, is a sort of existential hero plunged into a holy war. During his botched suicide, he spent a few crucial minutes in some sort of MTV/Bosch hell, and he now has the ability to flash back and forth from our world to Lucifer's, which allows him to fight hell's minions more effectively. His hunt for redemption involves patrolling those borders, keeping our world safe from hell's invadersand tipping the scale toward God in His wager and battle with Satan over souls.
All the while, the moody Constantine knows that mortality and his own galloping lung cancer are sending him to the afterlife at top speed. But by the end of "Constantine," though he's fighting evil furiously on all levels, there's barely a flicker of change on Reeve's handsome features or in his gloomy voice to indicate that this movie's hell and L.A. are disturbing places. Reeves' statuesque good looks, his main trump card as an action movie star, may actually work against his character here.
"Constantine" director Francis Lawrence is a first-timer and a music video veteranand if that doesn't set off alarm bells, you've missed a lot of the overblown action spectaculars of the past decade. Unlike Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, Lawrence takes the obvious career route here. And though he shows a lot of visual pizzazz and is working with a sometimes magnificent cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot ("Diva," "A River Runs Through It"), Lawrence doesn't bring many of the scenes to life. The only sequences that really click involve Swinton's angel and Stormare's Satanplus a few comic moments with Constantine's pushy young hero-wannabe assistant Chaz (Shia LeBeouf).
"Constantine" would have been much better with more of Swinton and Stormare. And it would certainly have been improved if Lawrence got some humor out of Reeves' part, even gallows-style. Reeves' Constantine is such a Gloomy Gus, his scenes and phrasing so monotonous, that he sometimes suggests a video-game hero in terminal depression.
The special effects and visuals are gangbusters (as usual), but they don't save "Constantine" any more than the actors do. In fact, the best comics-derived action movies of recent years have tended to be those that played their stories and characters for humor or light self-mockerylike most of the Marvel-derived movies, from the "Spider-Man" series to "X-Men." Though the "Hellblazer" graphic novels are darker and more serious, this movie is too overwhelmed by its own logistics and too one-note in its emotions to effectively plumb any depths or soar beyond logic. Despite the vast expenditures and overpowering resources we see here, a real heavenor hellcan wait.
Directed by Francis Lawrence; written by Kevin Brodbin, Frank Cappello, based on characters from the DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer graphic novels; photographed by Philippe Rousselot; edited by Wayne Wahrman; production designed by Naomi Shohan; music by Brian Tyler, Klaus Badelt; visual effects supervisor Michael Fink; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Erwin Stoff, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Akiva Goldsman. A Warner Bros. Pictures release of a Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures presentation of a Donners' Co./Batfilm Prods./Weed Road Pictures/3 Arts Entertainment production.; opens Friday. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: R (for violence and demonic images).
John Constantine - Keanu Reeves
Angela Dodson/Isabel Dodson - Rachel Weisz
Chaz - Shia LeBeouf
Midnite - Djimon Hounsou
Beeman - Max Baker
Father Hennessy - Pruitt Taylor Vince
Gabriel - Tilda Swinton
Satan -Peter Stormare