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To Hell and Back 

In Constantine, Keanu Reeves plays the chain-smoking postmodern exorcist John Constantine, of DC Comics' Hellblazer graphic novels, in an overlong movie that falls between last year's terrible Van Helsing and the far more competent rival Hellboy. John Constantine's youthful attempt at suicide -- he was hoping to escape his innate ability to recognize angels and demons -- leaves him wandering a noir-styled Los Angeles realm between heaven and hell where he attempts to earn salvation by exorcising demons and sending them back to their scalding fountainhead. The suicide of police detective Angela Dodson's twin sister (both played by Rachel Weisz) draws Constantine into an investigation that calls for him repeatedly to cross over into the depths of hell to save a soul similar to his own. Impressive special effects don't compensate for the film's muddled plot and inarticulate dialogue, but the source material's dark tone is consistently upheld, and Peter Stormare relishes with infectious glee his turn as a tar-footed Satan.

In a scene that exemplifies the film's droll humor, Angela (Weisz) asks Constantine if she has to take her clothes off before getting into a bathtub filled with water and from which he will navigate her temporary passage into the depths of hell. Constantine takes a long pause before answering Angela's query with, "I'm thinking." The inherent burlesque in his remark is soon suppressed when he restrains Angela beneath the water's surface as she struggles with shocking results.

Visual surprises sink in as Constantine's date with death -- he's dying from lung cancer -- approaches. Accomplished music video director Francis Lawrence (Will Smith's "Black Suits Coming") connects the movie with carefully framed sequences of sudden phantasmagoria that challenge gravity and the script's lack of backstory that could explain the shenanigans of spectacle. When Constantine is attacked on a dark Los Angeles street by an enormous demon made up of swarming bugs, we're left to wonder how a never-before-glimpsed insect (which Constantine keeps concealed in a matchbox) could pack such a punch.

To its credit, Constantine carries a pointedly anti-smoking theme that's emphatically pronounced during a physical interaction between Lucifer and the black-lunged Constantine. There are obvious similarities between Constantine and the cigarette smoking anti-hero of Chinatown, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). Constantine depends on his dedicated taxi driver Chas (Shia LaBeouf) to transport him around Los Angeles when he isn't walking, just as Gittes was relegated to depending on others for transportation around L.A. after his car was destroyed. In both movies a woman, who openly conceals aspects of her identity, pulls each man into an investigation with colossal ramifications. Even the poster for Constantine is an homage to the famous ad sheet for Chinatown.

However, some of the supporting actors in Constantine are nowhere near the stellar quality of the secondary performers in Polanski's film. Pruitt Taylor Vince (Identity) is an actor who's mucked up nearly every movie he's been in, and he's painfully unconvincing as a frail priest in Constantine. Shia LaBeouf (Holes) is meant to provide a comic Tonto to Constantine's deadpan Lone Ranger, but he's too young and unskilled as an actor to bring any guts to the part. Tilda Swinton plays an androgynous Gabriel and shifts the movie into faulty camp territory whenever she's onscreen. Since her gender-switching role in Orlando, Swinton has been the go-to Peter Pan prince of androgyny, and her bent here as the angel Gabriel feels like a stepchild adopted from a Wim Wenders movie. Some of that influence hails from the costume designer's obvious nod to Wenders' Wings of Desire, with inoperative wings that seem to frame Swinton as a feeble transsexual with a bad haircut.

As a follow-up to the Matrix trilogy that further branded Keanu Reeves as a hermetically sealed actor, Constantine gives the notoriously wooden actor some space to flex his not-quite-human attributes. Reeves' chiseled features have visibly aged only slightly, but enough so that his face helplessly conveys a knowing glint of his John Doe persona. This is an actor who makes up for what he lacks in his ability to emote (see Robert Downey Jr. or Daniel Day Lewis for that) in a guarded emotional stance that emits a vibrant imagination seething away deep in his cerebellum. There's a sense of safety and literate affectation in Keanu Reeves that audiences respond to. It's a quality that an actress like Charlotte Rampling carries into her performances.

Constantine is an entertaining movie as long as you're willing to sit back and savor the film's purposefully obscure plot while ignoring the fumbling supporting performances. The prime conceit of the movie is its gallows humor that seeps out like clotting blood from a decomposing corpse. It's a brand of humor that our current political climate demands in spades.

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