Keanu Reeves, the chiseled and enigmatic star who achieved overwhelming success in the face of underwhelming talent, returns to theaters with a movie that seems uncannily suited for his public persona. Deeply spiritual and austere though it may seem, the film has a tremendous central dumbness that all its excellent features can’t quite cover up. “Constantine” misses greatness by a huge margin, but it’s still a hell of a thrill ride.
The brooding film centers on title character John Constantine (Reeves), a man marked for hell with the ability to see “half-breed” angels and demons walking the Earth. He uses his power to vanquish the minions of hell in a vain attempt to buy his way into heaven. A police officer, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz, “The Mummy”), trying to understand the suicide of her mentally ill twin sister (also Weisz), solicits the help of Constantine. He soon discovers, conveniently, that Angela is the key to the apocalypse.
Fans of the source material, a comic book called “Hellblazer,” were outraged over the casting of Reeves as the cancer-afflicted anti-hero, among other reasons, because the Constantine of the graphic novels is so quintessentially British. The iconic American actor, who by all reports is far more intelligent than lingering “Bill and Ted” impressions would suggest, goes some way toward proving the skeptics wrong with a very credible transformation on his own terms. Though his inability to emote through facial expression has been excessively well documented, that trait is an asset here, lending Constantine a beaten, world-weary toughness. Reeves also has an effortless command of the screen, and though his dialogue delivery could be better, he gets so deep into Constantine’s skin that every gesture sells the character completely.
Given the apt lead performance and the intriguing premise of a man’s selfish saintliness, the film certainly has promise. Director Francis Lawrence (himself a recent escapee from music-video directing hell), however, seems unsure of how to realize that potential. “Constantine” moves awkwardly when Lawrence tries to grapple with broad spiritual themes, and the director cops out with empty horror clich