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      Constantine Review

      Constantine poster

      Constantine

      Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

      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.

      A "Matrix" it isn't - though it's obviously intended to remind us at times of Reeves' wildly nightmarish and imaginative 1999 hit. But here the source is different. Reeves plays doomed Los Angeles exorcist/sleuth/evil-fighter John Constantine, who springs from the DC Comics/Vertigo graphic-novel series "Hellblazer." That makes "Constantine" another big-budget comic book adaptation/extravaganza, and despite its A-level cast and special effects, it's a pretty dreary, grim affair. Episodic, grotesque and strangely uninvolving, "Constantine" is staged with such relentless computerized punch and such a lack of wit or character that it's wearying.

      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 doom - a compulsive chain-smoker dying of lung cancer - in search of some redemption. (By battling hell, he earns points in heaven.) 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 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 invaders - and 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 veteran - and 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 Satan, plus 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-mockery - like 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 heaven - or hell - can wait.

      "Constantine"

      Directed by Francis Lawrence; written by Kevin Brodbin and 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 and Klaus Badelt; visual effects supervisor Michael Fink; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Erwin Stoff, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and 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, Feb. 18. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: R (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

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