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Still the One

Reeves is back in black, and there's more hell to pay.


It's all so familiar: Keanu Reeves, shrouded in a black trench coat that flaps behind him like a superhero's wings, moves between a netherworld and a real world used as battleground, breeding ground and playground for higher beings amused and appalled by mortals. Here he is once again, a savior tapping into unseen worlds in order to sort out this one, which is slowly and quite literally going to hell. You'd be forgiven for believing in déjà-vu watching the nifty travelogue Constantine.

The casting of Matrix star Reeves is perhaps the most dubious thing about this movie, based on the long-running comic book Hellblazer, published by DC Comics' adult-oriented imprint Vertigo. After all, the character of demon fighter John Constantine, originally blond and British, was modeled after pop star Sting, who would have made a fine Constantine had Warner Bros. believed him capable of carrying a franchise, which this is clearly meant to be. Knottier is the performance itself. Reeves so underplays Constantine that his wisecracks escape as whispers, suggesting that a man who gained much of his supernatural power by attempting (and, for two minutes, actually committing) suicide as a young man is more dead than alive.

By all rights, the movie, too, should have been dead on arrival: Its source material is dense and complex, a thorny tangle of religion, magic, spirituality, faith and fallibility masquerading as a "superhero" book. To believe that a director of Britney Spears music videos (Francis Lawrence, making his first feature) and a writer of Steven Seagal movies (Kevin Brodbin, 1996's The Glimmer Man ) would wrest coherent meaning from so sprawling a text was too much to hope for. Yet they've succeeded by paring Hellblazer down to its essential theme: the damned John Constantine's effort to keep from winding up in hell by saving Earth from the devils who would claim it as their own.

God and Satan, having long ago agreed to keep their hands off folks, let their "half-breed" emissaries do their work for them. Constantine gets involved only when a half-breed steps out of line. Here he faces Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale, frontman for the god-awful band Bush) and Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, once more playing androgynous), who are attempting to bring the devil's son into this world to create a hell on Earth so they might find those who "will be worthy of God's love in heaven."

Caught up in the struggle are a cop named Angela (Rachel Weisz), a witch doctor named Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou) and Constantine's damned right-hand men (Pruitt Taylor Vince and Max Baker).

Constantine is beautiful to look at but even more lovely to ruminate over. Lawrence and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Diva, Big Fish) show us the world as a cathedral in which the forces of good and evil battle endlessly over our souls. The filmmakers go deep: It's not enough to know God exists, as Gabriel explains to Constantine, because knowing is not the same as believing in God, which involves forgiveness, unconditional love and, most important, sacrifice. Sounds like The Matrix, only done much, much better. Hell of a thing.

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