Friday, July 29, 2005

MOVIES: Constantine

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When you think Hell, do you think Keanu Reeves?

Very loosely based on the long-running horror comic “Hellblazer,” “Constantine” features Keanu as dark, haunted demon-fighter John Constantine.

Constantine is cursed with a kind of second sight, enabling him to see visions of the heaven and hell that lurk just beyond our ordinary world. It’s driven him nearly insane and to suicide attempts over the years. He’s since turned into a kind of bitter private investigator who uses these skills as a cut-rate exorcist, battling secret demons and doing his part to keep “the balance” between God and the devil.

But chain-smoking Constantine is dying of a festering lung cancer when he stumbles upon a plot involving a cop (Rachel Weisz) whose sister killed herself. The dead sister is somehow tied in with a hell-spawned conspiracy to bring demons to Earth, and only Constantine can stop it.

Director Francis Lawrence is not sure whether he’s staging a creepy horror movie or a guns ’n’ explosions action film. “Constantine” seems terribly conflicted. It’s all pretty far from the source material — and lacks the grimy nihilism of the original comics.

Constantine is British, blonde and roguish in them, but here, he’s a sulky Keanu with an attitude and a smoking habit. That wouldn’t be so bad if “Constantine” worked as a great movie on its own, but it’s sloppy.

The visuals are all drenched in sepia tones and glamorous squalor, like a cross between “Alien” and “The Exorcist” with a helping of “Seven” thrown in, and there’s plenty of arty MTV-style editing and camera effects. Everyone mumbles lines of ominous portent, broken occasionally by sequences of computer-generated demonic mayhem.

There are lots of cool little bits and pieces — freaky demons, an arsenal of holy weapons, a good ol’ boy Satan, Tilda Swinton’s charismatic performance as a powerful angel, eerie visions of hell — but the plot moves in fits and starts.

There are some fascinating concepts, including the idea of Earth basically caught in a kind of Cold War between God and Satan. But the movie never uses these ideas to their full potential.

And Keanu — well, he’s Keanu Reeves, dude, and I’ve yet to see him in a movie where I feel like he’s really acting. He frowns a lot and growls menacingly, but there’s no real interior weight to his portrayal of Constantine as a man facing damnation.

I imagine how much more effective a Ralph Fiennes or even Nicolas Cage could have been as Constantine. At least it’s not Ben Affleck. That really would be hell on earth.
**1/2 of four

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