There is nothing special about the plot foundations of “Constantine” (Warner Brothers Productions). God and Satan were shooting craps and one of them said, “Hey, I bet I can get more souls into my realm than you can.” The wager was mutually accepted, and both deploy “halfbreeds” who look like normal humans but are constantly trying to woo humans to either the path of good or evil.
John Constantine, exorcist extraordinaire and suicidal teenager reincarnate, referees Satan’s halfbreeds by sending them back to their respective realms when they overstep their bounds and expose themselves to humans. His goal is to please God, thus gaining entrance to heaven when he finally dies. He’s an alcoholic, hates everybody, dresses in black and doesn’t care who knows it. But things change when he discovers that demons (including Satan’s son, Mammon) are attempting to break through the heavenly plane. When Constantine meets the beautiful police detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), whose psychic sister has been found dead, the mystery finally begins to take shape. Sort of.
The fear that gripped me at the beginning of “Constantine” was not related to Satanism or the afterlife (I’ve always agreed with Curtis Mayfield anyway: “If there’s a Hell below, we’re all gonna go!”). Instead I was pained by the prospect of sitting through another film pitting the good forces of ritual Catholicism against the evil forces of bad, yucky Satan-worshipping. For the first 15 minutes of the film things were looking downright cynical. There’s an ancient Christian artifact wrapped in a Nazi flag, Keanu Reeves employs bizarre metric variations in his delivery, Rachel Weisz’s makeup is always carefully applied, etc. Indeed, the halfbreeds seem to be Gen-X, alternative-lifestyle ravers with glowing eyes. Read: bad 21st century vampire movie rip-off.
But then again, “Constantine” is not meant to be a work of art, and I enjoyed it. Based on DC Comics’ “Hellblazer,” the film serves as a solid cinematic comic book. Reeves’ “Constantine” is successfully irreverent and sometimes funny. He is certainly no great actor, but he is an effective action hero and shows the same kind of tough, requisite-for-action-hero amorality that was on display in “The Matrix.” Rachel Weisz’s character was boring and played a secondary role – indeed, Detective Dodson is really only around as a conduit for the Mammon’s ascension to earth. However, Peter Stormare makes up for nearly all of this with his short but wonderful appearance as Satan. In the end, I developed the same opinion of “Constantine” as the title character does about faith in the Christian God: “Some people like it; some people don’t.” Is it worth $8? Maybe not, but then again, comic books aren’t cheap these days.
“Constantine” opens Friday in Washington, D.C.