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Say this much for Constantine. In occasional moments, it's obvious that everybody involved really tried. Once in a while the treatment even rises above a standard demonic possession tale, though director Francis Lawrence has a tendency to borrow from a lot of genre biggies. Even Keanu Reeves takes the role seriously, often looking like death warmed over, a natural state for a character dying of lung cancer and knowing full well what awaits him in the afterlife.

Yes, there are a lot of good intentions in Constantine. But you know what they say about such things. With movies, it's the road to mediocrity.

The film jumps around a lot before finally narrowing down on its plot. All the elements do intertwine, but neither Lawrence nor Reeves quite find a rhythm to make the first twenty minutes or so anything more than tedious. In a sequence aimed at really revealing Constantine's character, a very busy exorcism seems just unnecessarily so, with no power to it. It isn't until a herd of cattle die in response to passing by the legendary Spear of Destiny that the film elicits any reaction - and unfortunately, it's laughter.

Which could be okay in a film about John Constantine, portrayed in comics as a guy who laughs in the face of Hell. Instead, screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello have made him into a sad clown. Overwhelmed by a childhood ability to see demons and angels, Constantine tried to kill himself. As a suicide, he has thus doomed himself to burn forever.

There are scant compensations for this. At least he gets to meet a lot of interesting people. For one thing, Constantine freely converses with the angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), in a plot point that seems to contradict the rules of the script.

To give the action more urgency, Brodbin and Cappello set up a pact between Heaven and Hell. Neither angels nor demons can come onto the earthly plane; they can only whisper and try to influence. Yet strangely enough, a lot of creatures looking like angels and demons keep walking around and being observed by humans, most of them more powerful than the "soldier demon" Constantine exorcises early on.

Of course, they're trying to break through. In fact, Hell's Bible says they will succeed. To do so, they need a psychic, and have unfortunately made their prime candidate Isabel (Rachel Weisz) commit suicide. Luckily her twin sister, police detective Angela, knows enough to call it murder. Through further intuition (or divine intervention), Angela crosses paths with Constantine in order to save her sister's soul.

Strangely enough, it plays out like a supernatural James Bond movie. Constantine has his Q in the form of the squirrelly Beeman (Max Baker), who provides him with supernatural weaponry. Djimon Hounsou's Papa Midnight could just as easily be dealing in black market arms as black magic. Hell even has its own clever rogue assassin, right out of SPECTRE in the form of coin-manipulating Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale, yes, frontman for the band Bush). If only Constantine were British, the picture would be complete.

For fans of the comic book, the third act does start to gel into something like Hellblazer. Yes, the crucifix shotgun does seem too gimmicky, but its usage is mercifully brief. When it all comes down to a climax, most of it is done with psychological manipulation and an absolutely brilliant character choice for Satan. It almost makes a dying Reeves seem dynamic.

To be fair, Reeves does have a couple of moments. He captures the grim determination of John Constantine, but fails to cover it with the jester persona that the script does try to give him. As an actor, Reeves can play more than one note; he just refuses to play more than one at a time, and that always holds him back.

Like most of Reeves' action film work, you have to look around him to take your pleasures. The production design does have some good touches. Though a little overused, the soldier demons do have a disturbing look. The idea of Los Angeles barely concealing Hell may also be old hat to Angel fans, but at least Constantine has the budget to really bring it to fruition.

And director Lawrence has peopled the film with some interesting casting choices. As an ill-fated associate of Constantine's (or is that simply redundant?), wild-eyed character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince gets a meaty part. Hollywood "It' boy Shia LeBouef struggles to make the underwritten and wasted role of Chas stand out. Swinton, however, owns Gabriel, though it's clear she could have done it in her sleep.

Only Rossdale fails to find any real spark, instead letting a gimmick and a pinstripe suit do his acting for him.

If you're a fan of the character, there's not enough here to satisfy you. At times it gets close, and that's more maddening than anything else. For people just looking to see a creepy movie, not really a scary one, then Constantine will pass two hours.

Hey, at least it's better than Catwoman.


Derek McCaw

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