In an expository scene from Constantine, supernatural troubleshooter John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) explains to police detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) the significance of something called the Spear of Destiny in a demonic plague threatening Los Angeles. It’s a significant relic for Satan’s minions, relates Constantine, because it was the spear that killed Jesus--since as we all know, it wasn’t the Crucifixion itself that was his cause of death.
That shaky bit of theology--check your Gospel of John for a slightly different version of the whole death/spear continuity--may seem typical of godless Hollywood, but it actually feels surprisingly startling here. With its intense focus on a distinctly Roman Catholic metaphysical cosmology, Constantine acts less like a typical comic-book adaptation than it does an attempt to turn Paradise Lost into a blockbuster action movie.
And the result is not nearly so dire as one might fear. Reeves again demonstrates his fondness for characters who wear black and carry the fate of humanity on their wiry shoulders as Constantine, a damned soul trying to play himself back into God’s good graces by acting as a sort of freelance exorcist. There’s some blather about the balance between good and evil and an eternal wager between God and Satan, all of which involves Weisz’s cop Angela. Like her twin sister who committed suicide, Angela has psychic tendencies, and may be part of a grand plan by Satan’s son Mammon to enter our plane of existence.
Since this is a comic-book adaptation--based on the DC/Vertigo series Hellblazer--there are certain familiar elements in play. Director Francis Lawrence--a music video veteran making his first feature--goes for that gloomy, atmospheric vibe that music video veterans so adore (see also: David Fincher, Tarsem Singh, Dominic Sena, etc.). The action beats come at regular intervals, pitting Constantine in cool battles against things like a demon whose body is a conglomeration of insects. And there’s a gallery of colorful supporting characters: Constantine’s eager apprentice Chas (Shia LaBeouf); mysterious witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou); Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the troubled priest with his own psychic torments; Beeman (Max Baker), Constantine’s Q-like supplier of anti-demon weaponry.
Yet there’s also a slightly off-center quality to the whole enterprise, starting with Constantine himself. Nobody’s kidding anybody any more about Keanu Reeves’ versatility as an actor, but he has the requisite gaunt presence for this character--a terminally ill grunt in the battle against evil. The production design shows some real visual ingenuity, from the scooped-out skulls of prowling demons to a vision of hell that resembles the ultimate L.A. traffic jam (not an inappropriate analogy, for those who’ve never endured one). And there are stylish touches like having Angela obscured in silhouette during one exchange with Constantine, as though she were in a confessional.
Mostly, though, there’s that whole Miltonian sensibility that permeates the film. Tilda Swinton turns in creepy work as an androgynous angel with a dark edge, nicely matched by Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale as a slick demon. The tug-of-war between heaven and hell frames the entire narrative, including the envy of angels for the preferred place of humans in creation. And in the finest tradition of Paradise Lost, the best moments all go to Satan himself, played here by a magnificently scene-stealing Peter Stormare. Somehow it all feels appropriately ... epic.
It also feels familiar, which hinders Constantine whenever it’s not going for the literary gusto. There’s a bit of Exorcist here, a bit of Blade there, a touch of Hellboy, and echoes of plenty of other supernatural thrillers. But it’s clever, and it’s got guts, and sometimes guts is enough. Forgive Constantine its scriptural trespasses as it delivers the most entertaining divine warfare this side of Paradise.
CONSTANTINE *** Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf. Rated R