CONSTANTINE directed by Francis Lawrence, written by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello from the comic by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis, produced by Lorenzo DiBonaventura and Akiva Goldsman, with Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz and Shia LaBoeuf. 121 minutes. A Warner Bros release. Opens Friday (February 18). For venues and times, see Movies, page 90. Rating: NN Rating: NNNNN
There's a moment in constantine when Satan tries to drag titular hero Keanu Reeves off to hell, only to discover that he's too heavy to budge. It's a tidy visual metaphor for Reeves's effect on the whole movie: an immobile lump that sinks everything.
Reeves does it with his usual repertoire - the sightless, soulless gaze, the disconnected line readings, the blank face. The overall effect is a near total absence of character, leaving the story with no one to care about and no heart.
Too bad - this could have been great. In DC Comics' John Constantine: Hellblazer, begun in 1988, the character and his world are complex and lively. Constantine, an occultist, runs on nerve, wit, charm and a very clever trickster mind. He sometimes loses, people die, and he pays a heavy emotional price.
Hellblazer's initial writer, Jamie Delano, followed by Garth Ennis, give us character-driven horror stories. Everyone has an emotional range, believable motives and real consequences. The supernatural is used as a metaphor that's well thought out. Those first 84 issues are brilliant reading.
We get tiny glimpses of that in the the film, which is partly based on an Ennis five-parter from 1991. Constantine's got lung cancer and is going straight to hell, damned for an old crime, and he's just stumbled across hell's gruesome plot to take over earth. Heaven won't help him with either problem - the angels distrust his motives. He'll have to think his own way out.
Reeves does not read as a "thinking man," and the clunky script gives him little chance to try until the climax, which works nicely but offers too little too late. The big gun and brass knuckles he uses till then are just laughable.
He can't play English (see Coppola's Dracula), so the script turns Constantine from a cockney scuffling through Thatcher's decaying England to an American in contemporary Los Angeles. But the look is wrong, neither one place nor the other, and the social context is gone.
And the key supporting characters still seem very English. Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare as, respectively, Gabriel and Satan, are the most British and shine wickedly. Give Constantine to Ewan McGregor or Robert Carlyle (think Trainspotting) and you've some idea of what this could've been.
The original story, Ennis's Dangerous Habits, is still out there as a graphic novel. It's a far better use of your money and time.