2005 has thus far been the year of has-been horror hackery, yielding tepid, derivative freak shows anchored by formerly provocative leading men Robert De Niro (Hide and Seek), Christian Slater (Alone in the Dark), Michael Keaton (White Noise), and—perhaps "provocative" isn't quite the right word here—7th Heaven's Barry Watson (Boogeyman). This dogpile of interchangeable schlock-shock sets up Keanu Reeves' Constantine (which opens Friday, Feb. 18, at the Neptune and other theaters) as the straw that should break the beleaguered crit community's back. The art direction and costuming trigger unfortunate Matrix resemblances; it's the umpteenth big-screen adaptation of a comic book we've never heard of (in this case, DC/Vertigo's Hellblazer); and Warner Bros. just dumped it in mid-February, Hollywood no-man's-land. Good thing the director of Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" video is at the helm.
And yet, Constantine shrugs off its scarlet letters and red flags, claws its way out of the abyss, and not only entertains but occasionally provokes thought, at least as much as a time-killing supernatural potboiler can. In his debut feature, director Francis Lawrence minimizes Keanu's Keanuity (no polysyllabic monologues equal no unintentional hilarity), rolls the dice by encouraging continental scenery chewing from Tilda Swinton (The Deep End), Peter Stormare (Fargo), and even ex-grunge god Gavin Rossdale, and scores boxcars—with an additional six for good satanic measure.
A little preliminary Bible brushup, particularly on Revelation and Corinthians, may help you keep in step with the intricacies of the plot, but it's not mandatory. Our eponymous antihero is a hard-boiled, hard-living SOB (I know, I know; just pretend we're not talking about Keanu Reeves) with Haley Joel Osment's gift for seeing, well, not dead people per se, but "half-breed" angels and demons who roam Earth in human disguise, trying to tip mankind's scale toward good or evil. Understandably, these nightmarish visions freaked out the preteen Constantine so much that he offed himself, a mortal sin that would've landed him in hell if he weren't inexplicably resurrected. With a new lease on life, Constantine freelances as a demon hunter, taking the nasties down when they get out of line. (Zoo rules apply: They can talk to us all they like, but never touch.) He'd like to use his bounty-hunter services as collateral to get into heaven, but the androgynous gatekeeper angel Gabriel (Swinton, and yes, she has wings) constantly, condescendingly denies access; entrance is based on faith, and Constantine saw the truth illicitly.
Clever little catch-22. So Constantine is stuck, pissed, and nihilistic, which Reeves conveys by smoking, muttering, coughing, then smoking some more. With nothing else to do, he kicks demon ass and occasionally administers exorcisms, which are nowhere near The Exorcist's did-I-just-see-a-little-girl-masturbate-with-a-crucifix standard, but fun enough. When a cop (Rachel Weisz) petitions his mack hand after her institutionalized twin sister's mysterious suicide, Constantine sees (a) another plum opportunity to get in the Big Man's good graces, and more importantly, (b) a shift in the balance of God and Lucifer's eternal power struggle.
If the setup sounds like a straight-faced take on Kevin Smith's Dogma, it kind of is, albeit with far less logorrheic showboating. Not that there's anything revolutionary going on here. Constantine has his share of irksome stock-character support, including a chatterbox cabbie apprentice and a jittery supplier of occult artifacts and weapons. And as cosmically intertwined, bickering romantic foils, Reeves and Weisz ain't exactly James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window—hell, they're barely Christopher Reeve and Daryl Hannah in the TV remake.
Although director Lawrence can't sidestep every cliché, he at least builds a legitimately freakish, colorful playground for his archetypes to fester in, not unlike what Tarsem Singh (who was originally attached to direct) did in The Cell. Anticipating the loopholes that allow Reeves to get what he wants makes for a nice guessing game. If his requisite cynical jabs are less stimulating ("God's a kid with an ant farm"), wait 'til you get a load of Stormare, who evidently prepared for his role as Lucifer by renting a double feature of The Silence of the Lambs and The Devil's Advocate. Neither groundbreaking nor insipid, heavenly nor hellacious, Constantine is simply good company in purgatory's waiting room. That's all we mortals can ask of Hellywood this time of year.