At first (and second and maybe even third) glance, it's all so familiar: Keanu Reeves shrouded in a black trench coat that flaps behind him like a superhero's wings, moving between netherworlds and a real world used as a battleground, breeding ground, and playground for higher beings amused and appalled by the doings of mortals. There he is once again, a savior tapping into unseen worlds in order to sort out this one, which is slowly and quite literally going to hell. There is no portal on the back of his head, only a bucket of water and a kitty cat and, if necessary, an electric chair lifted from Sing Sing Prison -- one of the handful of ways he temporarily kills himself in order to take a trip downstairs. But you'd be forgiven for believing in déjà vu at myriad stops along the way from Earth to hell to heaven and back again as revealed in the nifty travelogue called Constantine.
The casting of Reeves is perhaps the most dubious thing about this movie, based on the long-running comic book Hellblazer published by DC Comics' adult-oriented imprint Vertigo. After all, the character of mordant, chain-smoking demon-fighter John Constantine, as introduced 20 years ago in the Saga of the Swamp Thing, was originally blond and British -- modeled, in fact, very much after pop star Sting, who would have made a fine Constantine had Warner Bros. believed him capable of carrying a franchise, which this is clearly meant to be. Then, of course, there's the slight problem of watching Reeves try to wriggle out of one messiah role and into another, in a story that bears a striking resemblance to the Matrix bedtime tales told by Andy and Larry Wachowski. But most knotty is the performance itself: Reeves so underplays Constantine that his wisecracks escape as whispers, suggesting that a man who gained much of his supernatural powers by attempting (and, for two minutes, actually committing) suicide as a young man is more dead than alive. The movie's biggest spark comes from Constantine's Zippo, used to fire the Marlboro that perpetually dangles from the lips and fingertips of this dead man walking.
By all rights, the movie, too, should have been dead on arrival: Its source material, more than 200 Hellblazer issues written over the years by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Brian Azzarello and Garth Ennis and other revered comic book scribes, is dense and complex, a thorny tangle of religion, magic, spirituality, faith, and fallibility masquerading as a "superhero" book, occasionally with vicious demons and costumed demigods. To believe that a director of Britney Spears music videos (Francis Lawrence, a feature first-timer) and a writer of Steven Seagal movies (Kevin Brodbin, author of 1996's The Glimmer Man) would wrest meaningful coherence from so sprawling a text was too much to hope for. Yet they've succeeded by paring down Hellblazer to its essential theme: the damned John Constantine's effort to keep from winding up in hell by saving Earth from the devils who'd claim it as their own.
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Its plot is as old as religion itself, pitting God against Satan in a power struggle over the souls of humankind. Having long ago agreed to keep their hands off folks, they let their "half-breed" emissaries do their work for them -- the "influence peddlers," as Constantine calls them, who whisper things in our ears but never directly interfere. Constantine gets involved only when a half-breed steps out of line: In this case it's Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale, front man for the God-awful Bush) and Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, once more playing androgynous) who are attempting to bring the Devil's son into this world to create a hell on Earth so they might find those who "will be worthy of God's love in heaven." To do so, they must use the Spear of Destiny, tipped with the blood of Christ at his Crucifixion; imagine this, if you will, as a sequel to The Passion of the Christ.
Caught up in this unholy birth is a cop named Angela (Rachel Weisz), who, as a child, had similar visions of demons walking among us; Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), witch doctor and proprietor of a hellacious nightclub; Chas Chandler (Shia LaBeouf), Constantine's driver and sidekick ("like Tonto or Robin"); and Pruitt Taylor Vince and Max Baker as Constantine's damned right-hand men. Also making an appearance, in a dapper white suit, is the Devil himself; after all, as Constantine is often reminded, he's the one soul Satan would come to Earth to collect himself.
What Constantine offers is a deceptively thoughtful tale tricked up like an action movie; it's beautiful to look at, but even more lovely to ruminate over. Lawrence and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Diva, Big Fish) linger over the crucifixes they put into nearly every scene; we're meant to see the entire world as a cathedral in which the forces of good and evil battle endlessly over our souls. The filmmakers go deep when they could have stayed in the shallow end, the purview of most comic book adaptations. Theirs is a story not about fighting, but about faith: It's not enough to know God exists, as Gabriel explains to Constantine, because knowing is not the same as believing in God, which involves forgiveness, unconditional love, and, most important, sacrifice. Come to think of it, sounds like The Matrix, only done much, much better. Hell of a thing.