Devil may care

No chills but some thrills among the demons and angels in Constantine

FEELING VERRRY SLEEPY Keanu Reeves is John Constantine, the supernatural detective from the <i>Hellblazer</i> comic book who leaves no cat unturned.

FEELING VERRRY SLEEPY Keanu Reeves is John Constantine, the supernatural detective from the Hellblazer comic book who leaves no cat unturned.

Starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

Having never read the DC comic Hellblazer that is the source material for Constantine, I carried no baggage with me into the theater. Apparently, however, the faithful audience of the series is upset at the liberties taken. I suppose I would be also, if Keanu Reeves were cast as one of my favorite characters. It could have been worse: Nicholas Cage was initially slated to star. To give him credit, Reeves plays it straight.

At least the film looks great, sort of a neo-noir homage to Chinatown, only with souls at stake, not water rights.

A slight digression: What’s up with Catholicism that it gets its own horror sub-genre? If there is some sinister cabal at work or the End of Days is looming, it’s never with the Jehovah’s Witnesses attendant. Or even the Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists or whatnot. It’s always with the Catholics. Is the Apocalypse even part of Catholic dogma?

Just wondering.

Because it’s not clear here. Even with my Cliffs Notes background in Catholicism, I got the vibe that the writers were taking quite a few liberties with the dogma.

After unearthing the Spear of Destiny (for those who missed Conspiracy Theory 101, the spear that pierced the side of Christ, gone missing from Hitler’s occult collection at the end of World War II), a hardscrabble Mexican jumps the border and makes for the City of Angels, a diabolical rendezvous on his itinerary. He’s not the only one jumping borders; demons are popping up in bursts of brimstone all over the human plane.

Since this is in violation to the rules of a long-standing bet between God and Satan, enter John Constantine, a kind of existential border guard. Dying of lung cancer but still snapping his Zippo like a drag queen snaps his fingers as he exhales smoke and bloody phlegm, he is the only soul, it is said, that Satan would rise up to claim himself.

After her preternaturally intuitive twin takes a leap off the roof of a psychiatric high rise (what, the hospital blew its budget on rooftop security cameras so they couldn’t afford a suicide barrier?), an LA cop (Rachel Weisz) co-ops Constantine to find out what induced her sibling to violate her Catholic faith’s biggest no-no. Meanwhile, androgynous arch-angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) flitters about, dipping wing tip into the apocalypso.

I don’t have a religious background, so the proceedings here never truly resonated for me. Taken strictly as a horror film, Constantine never delivers with the chills, but it does offer up some disquieting imagery.

A significant number of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project theorized that the detonation of the A-bomb held the potential to trigger a chain reaction that would ignite the Earth’s atmosphere, and director Francis Lawrence’s vision of Hell comes unnervingly close to the realization of that possibility. As Constantine drops down into the inferno to do a background check, the burning cityscape swirls about him in maelstrom, as below in the sewers the damned writhe like flaming maggots. It is the best image in the film and almost counters Reeves mopey disaffection.

Weisz and Swinton hold up to their end of the bargain, turning in winning performances, although Peter Stormare as the Prince of Darkness is almost embarrassing to watch. Imagine Paul “That’s dis-gus-ting!” Lynde on steroids.

Despite its weaknesses, Constantine is at least never boring and does manage some thrilling action set-pieces.

Note: If you are willing to sit through the end credits, there is a brief coda.