You’d think people would be gorged on comic-book depictions of good and evil after last year’s protracted moral-values muck crawl, but Constantine aims to get us worked up about the state of our souls all over again. Despite its Exorcist-for-speed-freaks effects and clever (if cynical) proposition that heaven and hell are factions in a grand-scale corporate rivalry, the flaccid movie adds nothing to the argument.
Adapted from the DC Comics series Hellblazer, the film concerns the efforts of John Constantine (Keanu Reeves)—a metaphysical exterminator with dual citizenship in Earth and Hades—to prevent an apocalypse engineered by God’s double-dealing right-hand, er, man (Tilda Swinton, in full Orlando bloom, channeling goggle-eyed Bushian sanctimony). A cop (Rachel Weisz) investigating her sister’s apparent suicide seeks Constantine’s help and becomes a pawn in the plot, and Djimon Hounsou turns up as a “witch doctor” named Papa Midnite, if for no other reason than to give non-comics readers a taste of the medium’s tin ear for cultural niceties.
Fans of Hellblazer are bound to be disappointed, as the filmmakers have relocated the character from London’s drizzly murk to sun-plagued Los Angeles, and altered him from a stroppy Mancunian chain smoker with terminal lung cancer to a slightly annoyed Yank with no distinguishable regional affect (the perpetual cigarette and disease remain). The changes might not matter if director Francis Lawrence, a music-vid veteran, made better use of L.A.’s film noir bona fides, but aside from the occasional skid row backdrop Constantine could’ve been shot in Toronto. And while Reeves strives antiheroically for hard-boiled anomie, he’s too contained a presence to capture the pathologized romanticism of a true noir burnout (a funny scene involving a highball glass and a spider notwithstanding).
More to the point, the actor’s black-on-white getup makes it plain that Constantine is one “whoa” away from Neo-dom, and that Constantine likely represents the start of another Hollywood franchise with diminishing returns in its future.