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Well-Acted Hell 

Even though Keanu Reeves is slightly less sucky than one may expect, 'Constantine' should still be avoided

If you're going to see Constantine--and this is no worse a choice than, say, having unprotected sex while on vacation in Haiti, or going to war on a flimsy rationale and with the vain hope that your invading troops will be welcomed as liberators--then you should take care to leave your inner geek at home.

See, for those of you who have not been living under a rock for the last 10 years, Constantine is based on cult-favorite comic book Hellblazer, about a cynical, middle-aged Englishman whose dabblings in the occult bring him face to face with hippies and demons and angels and angry mud men. The main character in this comic book, John Constantine, is precisely and specifically the sort of person who would never, ever in a million years say, "whoa."

So it's a bit of a surprise for the nerds of the world that when the good folks (and I use the word "good" in a figurative sense here) at Warner Bros. decided to make a movie out of this property, they cast Keanu Reeves in the lead, whose acting credits include Bill and Ted's Ill-Conceived Sequel, Johnny Moronic and The Matrix: Overrated.

A bit of a surprise, and not a good one. On the other hand, the announced cast also included Rachel Weisz, who's made a few bad career choices (The Mummy) but is nonetheless regarded as one of the finer actresses who's willing to appear in high- budget, B-movie films.

So here's the real surprise: Keanu Reeves doesn't suck in the lead (not sucking, though, is still a long way from actually being good), and Rachel Weisz does suck--like a high-powered Hoover at the center of a super-massive black hole. It's like Keanu did some sort of acting incubus number on her and siphoned off all of her thespian powers so as to make himself just passably bad. And this is why the inner geek will be disappointed: Keanu, even not sucking, just does not capture the essence of the well-defined Constantine character. So don't go looking for that.

The inner geek will be further disappointed to see that the comic-book storyline, which features a lot more intrigue and intellectual sleuthing than exploding monster heads, has been replaced by a plot which, while a bit light on intellect even by the standards of Hollywood (a place where Ph.D. stands for "bring me another cocaine-dipped whore") is shockingly heavy on the exploding monster heads.

In short: John Constantine, now a denizen of Los Angeles, discovers (1) that demons are planning to take over the world, (2) that he has a lot of tumors in both of his lungs and (3) that he has to go to hell when he dies, because he's been naughty. These are not good things to learn all at once, so John becomes very cross and starts hitting demons with his holy brass knuckles and shooting fireballs with his magic wand and blasting infernal forces with his ridiculous crucifix cannon. Then all hell literally (and I use the word "literally" figuratively) breaks loose, and Satan walks the Earth, and angels fall from the heavens and a man named James Guckert arises in the east.

Actually, as boring as all the super-action is, the opening of the film isn't bad. In fact, the first 20 minutes seem quite promising. There's some interesting stuff with a poor Mexican laborer finding The Spear of Destiny (i.e. the spear that pierced Jesus' side during the passion, though not during The Passion) and a weird exorcism featuring scary things like mirrors and monsters and Pruitt Taylor Vince.

Yes, Pruitt Taylor Vince, one of America's finest acting treasures, shows up here and does some shtick as a fat, drunken priest. It's a bit of a waste, as are the appearances by Djimon Hounsou, one of Benin's finest acting treasures; Tilda Swinton, one of England's finest acting treasures; and Peter Stormare, one of Sweden's finest acting treasures.

They're all good; Peter Stormare is even excellent as Satan. He does a Satan you've never seen before, one that captures something about Lucifer's doleful sensuality. It's creepy and gross and mean in a petty way, and yet doesn't surrender what Milton noted about Satan--that even in his fallen state, there was something noble about him.

All this fine acting, plus Mr. Reeves' slightly sub-mediocre performance, plus Rachel Weisz's ghastly series of acting errors, plus some cornball dialogue, make for a grade-C picture. It's pretty much what you'd expect from an effects-movie released in February, the time of year when the studios dump projects that would not be able to compete during the crowded summer months. There are certainly worse things you can do with your time than go see Constantine, but most of those involve being mean to kittens or working in marketing, so they're best avoided. As is this film.

Constantine
Rated NR

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