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Constantine   B-

Warner Bros. Pictures / Village Roadshow Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Kevin Brodbin, Frank A. Cappello (based on characters from the DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer graphic novels)
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Tilda Swinton, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Dijimon Hounsou, Gavin Rossdale, Peter Stormare.

Review by Rob Vaux

DC Comics' quest to catch Marvel in the My-Film-Adaptation-Is-Cooler-Than-Yours department has taken a turn for the Catholic. Constantine, lifted from the Hellblazer books of their Vertigo line, is more John Milton than Stan Lee. Its universe is threatened not by mad scientists or egomaniacal conquerors, but by villains of a much older bent: the minions of Hell engaged in their eternal chess match with God's heavenly host. Between them walks the title character, an exorcist by way of Philip Marlowe who hunts demons the way other gumshoes hunt femme fatales. It's a great subject for a big-time motion picture... if you can pull it off.

For the bulk of Constantine's running time, that issue remains in doubt. At times, it threatens to fly into pieces as its disparate scenes struggle for commonality. Other times, though, it takes our breath away, and in those moments lay its redemption. Indeed, the film is chock full of pleasures... perhaps too many for its own good. Like the flock of demons that whips through its darkened streets, it's often too intent on rushing to and fro to remember its destination. But oh, the things it shows us along the way.

The cause of both its strengths and its weaknesses is director Francis Lawrence, whose background lies in music videos. He has a gift for conveying large amounts of meaning in a very short time, which gives Constantine a wonderful, excited pulse. Postcard snippets of unfiltered cool crowd up against each other, vying madly for our attention: a haunted man walking through a herd of cows that fall over dead at his approach; the maintenance corridor of a bowling alley transformed by its shivering occupant into an occult workshop; a vision of Hell -- patterned on the freeways of Los Angeles -- as convincing as any yet put on-screen; and the archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) full of equal parts terrible beauty and tart mischief. Lawrence shows a gift not only for evoking these wonders, but for investing them with considerable power. In Constantine's best sequences, we're practically swimming in them, overcome by the dark, gleeful thrills they inspire.

The trouble comes when the film tries to build something other than gee-whiz theatrics. Here, Lawrence finds himself on shakier ground, so caught up in immediacy that he loses focus on the bigger picture. Its central arc involves John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), a former suicide rescued from death but retaining a clear image of the Hell to which he had been damned. As a form of restitution, he tracks down demons -- who trouble our mortal coil as tempters and possessors -- and sends them shrieking back to the abyss. In the process, he hopes to eventually earn absolution for his sin: a mercenary philosophy that apparently doesn't go over well with the Almighty. But then he meets a desperate police detective (Rachel Weisz) whose dead twin sister opens a mystery of cosmic proportions, and perhaps a way for Constantine to finally set things right with the Man Upstairs.

Though the story stays coherent, it also wanders off the path more than once. Characters come and go with little connection to the main plot; they exist merely to provide a neat scene or two before moving on. They certainly grab our attention, but the film itself would lose little if they were excised -- and the number of them makes for a very cluttered middle act. Within it all, the two leads struggle hard to make an impression. Reeves has the character's mannerisms down pat -- as a physical presence, he's gritty and convincing -- but his tough-guy dialogue often rings hollow and lacks the menace of his glaring eyes. He fares well, however, when compared to poor Weisz: cast adrift in a walking McGuffin role, she fights heroically, but lacks the material to make her character resonate.

Such problems remain stubbornly prominent, stranding Constantine -- like its protagonist -- between the divine and the damned. The points where it stumbles are unseemly in the extreme, and the film never shakes the sense that it could fall apart at any moment. But Lawrence always has something more to show us -- there's always another sequence that makes us open our eyes and say "wow" -- and though his camera often strays, it never quite loses its way. He finally brings it all together in a masterful climax involving both the luminous Swinton (who's going to kick 40 kinds of ass as the White Witch) and Peter Stormare (stealing the show as Christianity's ultimate enfant terrible). It's an impressive way to stick the dismount: laying bare Constantine's solid philosophical conceits -- the intertwining threads of good and evil and how one can often spring from the other -- without skimping on a satisfying payoff.

The results lift the film above its demons and place it, finally, in the realm of the worthwhile. Constantine won't set any new standards for comic-book films, but it's good enough and consistent enough to keep its parent company in the race. Small joys are worth cherishing, and while this one may have more than it should, at least they're genuine joys and not facile crap. Claim whichever ones you will; they're bound to add up to something memorable.

Review published 02.17.2005.

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