Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

In Constantine, a puckishly entertaining provocation about moral ambiguity and very bad skin, Keanu Reeves plays an unwilling exorcist, a kind of INS officer for supernatural carriers of good and evil. John Constantine was born with X-ray vision that allows him to spot the angels and demons who walk the Earth as half-breeds yet pass as ordinary humans. The strain of his unwanted gift having proved intolerable, Constantine tried as a youth to kill himself, but was resuscitated—albeit as a marked man, predestined by God or heavy smoking, or both, for an early grave. Or, as a no-nonsense angel Gabriel (played by Tilda Swinton, cinema's It girl of brainy androgyny) pithily puts it, “You're fucked.” Condemned to patrol the borders between heaven and hell, also known as Los Angeles, Constantine tries to buy reprieve by sorting the divine wheat from the diabolical chaff and dispatching the latter back to the netherworld, a conventionally fiery-orange charnel house located just beneath the steamy manholes of downtown and populated by predatory, worm-eaten shape-shifters with empty eye sockets.

Constantine was inspired by the DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer graphic novels, described on their website as “a mature-readers title,” which I take as a reference to precociously literate boys between the ages of 12 and 30. I'm not being mean: The novels, which began life as dryly iconoclastic grunge critiques of 1980s life in Thatcherite Britain, have a smart-aleck juvenile appeal, not lost in translation to an unmistakably American sensibility, that pits an apocalyptic Catholic determinism against a bleak but bracing existentialism, leavened with high-testosterone vigilante calisthenics. Notwithstanding a dispiritingly banal script, credited to Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello but showing all the flattening signs of collective meddling, Constantine is an imaginative, if overstuffed attempt to chart the boundaries of American spiritual life.

The movie is its own kind of half-breed, riddled with schisms both Christian and corporate. Constantine and his grinning nemesis, Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale), are intermediaries for Gabriel and Lucifer (Peter Stormare), and of all these only Constantine, played by Reeves with suitably noirish inexpressiveness, is not wearing a power suit. Charged with exorcising the half-demons, Constantine is the most ambivalent and unsolicitous of heroes. He's irritated by the inability of a drunken priest (played by Heavy's Pruitt Taylor Vince, he of the swiveling eyes) to function as an exorcist, and only does the job himself to purchase a longer lease on life. But when a local cop (Rachel Weisz), who comes to him with doubts about the apparent suicide of her clairvoyant twin sister, finds herself dogged by a fully formed Horrid Thing, Constantine begins to realize that the precarious balance between good and evil he's charged with maintaining is tilting in the wrong direction.

For a movie that's ambivalent at best about institutionalized religion, Constantine is washed through with baroque Catholic ambience, studded with ancient relics and talismans and fire-breathing authority figures. Director Francis Lawrence, a graduate of music videos like most hot new creators of neo-noir flicks for the barely-of-age, has perfected a visceral, in-your-face visual style (the cinematographer is Philippe Rousselot, who has worked a lot with Tim Burton) that never lets up. By the time I stumbled, blinking, out onto the studio lot, I was astonished to discover that no one around me had half a face, or a smoldering hole where once sat a nose, or an abdomen writhing under attack by some murderous parasite from a source other than the commissary lunch. Yet Constantine, which opts in the end for what I can only describe as a kind of supernatural humanism, is not without its spiritual satisfactions. For those of us in the audience who have difficulty accommodating any kind of a Higher Being, the movie's funniest and most touching moment is when Constantine confronts a chastened Gabriel, disheveled and left with only the stumps of her magnificent wings, and slugs her a good one. “That's called pain,” he says. “Get used to it.”

CONSTANTINE was directed by FRANCIS LAWRENCE; Written by KEVIN BRODBIN and FRANK CAPPELLO, based on DC Comics/Vertigo's Hellblazer; Produced by LAUREN SHULER DONNER, BENJAMIN MELNIKER, MICHAEL E. USLAN, ERWIN STOFF, LORENZO DI BONAVENTURA and AKIVA GOLDSMAN; and stars Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz. Now playing countywide.

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