Keanu soars again in theaters

Greg Ebbecke

“Constantine” – 3 out of 4

Starring Keanu Reeves,

Rachel Weisz, Shia LeBouf

and Gavin Rossdale

Directed by Francis Lawrence

Running Time: 121 min.

Rated R

“Constantine” opens with the suddenness of a car crash, and viewers, much like passing motorists, cannot look away from that moment on.

I have never read a “hellblazer” comic, upon which this movie is loosely based, nor had I ever heard of John Constantine until seeing the trailers. I wasn’t even expecting much from this movie after the general disappointment I suffered watching other mid-winter comic-turned-movie releases, the king and queen of which were 2003’s “Daredevil” and this past January’s “Elektra.” “Constantine” is heads above those two aforementioned bombs, although I imagine “hellblazer” purists will have their reservations.

John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a man cursed with the “gift” of seeing the demons and angels walking among us. Tormented by what he once thought were delusions, but soon learns are quite real, Constantine searches not to make the world a better place, but just to save himself.

Eternally damned after an attempted suicide, he patrols the streets of Los Angeles seeking to buy his way into heaven by maintaining the balance between good and evil.

If a “half-breed,” a demon on earth, crosses the line, Constantine is all too happy to deport him or her back to hell. Lately though, the denizens of hell have not been happy leaving the earth to the half-breeds and are attempting to cross over.

Building on our innate fear of what lurks in the dark, “Constantine” exists in a world that seems to go from twilight to midnight continuously. The darkness lends itself perfectly to all the things that go bump in the night, but it isn’t so much what you see that makes your skin crawl as much as what you think might be lurking just off in the shadows.

Then there is hell itself, which is absolutely breathtaking. I suddenly wished I had not skipped Mass last Sunday. Instead of going with the usual magma-filled cave, the visual effects unit creates a hell more akin to a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles consumed by an eternal inferno.

Below this urban wasteland lies a pit of the damned, where tortured souls are torn apart by demons only to be reborn and torn apart again repeatedly for all eternity.

Constantine himself suffered this torment for the two minutes he was “officially dead,” although, as he all too somberly tells us, two minutes in hell is like a lifetime. After seeing what eternal damnation might be like, I too would be more concerned with buying my way into heaven than saving the world.

Given how the world of “Constantine” is depicted, it is amazing how well the characters seem to inhabit it. No character seems out of place, although as Roger Ebert so often says, the economy of characters seems to be in full effect.

Every character serves a purpose in the script, whether it be dying so we can realize their true worth or so that some secret or plot twist can be revealed at a later point.

John Constantine is played almost perfectly by Keanu Reeves. As he did so well in “Speed” and again in the original “Matrix,” Reeves exudes a character with no interest in saving the day, but might as well, since it is what has to be done. We can’t like him, but we can sympathize with his actions.

Having said this, I realize that true Constantine-ites probably did not have Reeves in mind when they envisioned their favorite anti-hero.

Rachel Weisz (“The Mummy,” “Enemy at the Gates”) does an excellent job as Angela Dodson, a hard-nosed cop seeking answers for her sister’s suicide, and even manages to elicit some chemistry from the usually stonewalled Reeves.

Shia LeBouf once again nails down the part of the smart-alecky sidekick to our hero, much as he did in “I, Robot.”

Peter Stormare (“The Lost World,” “Bad Boys II”) and Djimon Hounsou (“Gladiator,” “In America”) make the best of what are limited roles as Satan and the mysterious Papa Midnite respectively.

Gavin Rossdale’s talents, however, are wasted in his role as Balthazaar, a businessman demon who exists only to look sinister and give Constantine someone to hate.

Coming in at just over two hours, the movie is just long enough to keep you entertained without making you wish the theater chairs were a bit more comfortable. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission, although I wished they showed a little more of hell’s underground.

The cast manages to do what they can with a limited storyline, and while I wish that the plot was a little more substantial, it is far better than the recent spate of action/sci-fi movies at the multiplex. This is a definite eye-candy, popcorn fest that is sure to please the bulk of the audience heading out to see it, although die-hard fans will be left feeling a little jaded.