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Review: Heaven, hell and middling 'Constantine'

Keanu Reeves thriller has moments, but special effects win

By Paul Clinton

Keanu Reeves stars in the title role of "Constantine."
Keanu Reeves
Rachel Weisz

(CNN) -- The title role of John Constantine in the new science fiction thriller "Constantine" is actually tailor-made for the limited talents of Keanu Reeves. His vacant "nobody's home" delivery is perfect for this antihero, a demon-hunter who is caught between heaven and hell.

It also helps that whiz-bang computer generated special effects, and not Reeves, are the real stars of this film. Of course, all of Reeves' most successful movies have that same common denominator.

Based on a character from the DC comics "Hellblazer" series, Constantine is cursed by the images of half-breed angels and demons who roam the world -- in this case, the streets of Los Angeles.

Apparently, long ago, God and the devil made a wager for the souls of all mankind. God and the devil are restricted from having direct contact with the human race, but these half-breeds are free to roam the earth trying to influence people toward either good or evil.

From early childhood, Constantine is one of the few humans who could actually see these creatures as they really are -- to the rest of us they appear to be normal people. The images were so disturbing that he attempted suicide as a teenager. He failed, but he did spend two minutes in hell.

Now he spends his life trying to redeem himself. Since this story is based on Catholic dogma, and suicide is a mortal sin, Constantine is destined to return to hell at the end of his life here on earth. He's hoping that if he sends enough demons back to where they came from, he'll get a reprieve in the form of a one-way ticket to the Pearly Gates.

But suddenly the rules seem to be changing. The demon half-breeds are beginning to appear as they really are and are attempting to take over the world.

Of course, only one person on earth can prevent this from happening. You have three guesses as to who that person is and the first two don't count.

Still, heroes -- or antiheroes -- are supposed to save the world, and movie audiences know it. The question becomes, how is the ride?

Well, "Constantine's" ride starts off with one hell (pardon the pun) of a big bang. It's a promising opening, but unfortunately -- with a few exceptions -- the rest of the action in the film feels extremely fragmented. It can't quite live up to this "jump-out-of-your-seat" beginning.

Fortunately, the script is populated with some great supporting characters, beginning with an L.A. detective, Angela Dodson, played with great conviction by Rachel Weisz (who, incidentally, co-starred with Reeves in "Chain Reaction" in 1996). A devout Catholic, she's trying to prove her twin sister did not commit suicide. Her investigation leads to Constantine and she's drawn into his world of demons and half-breeds.

Djimon Hounsou has a flashy role as a faith healer named Midnight who runs a nightclub that is a sanctuary for half-breeds from both sides of the battle between good and evil. It's nice to know that after a hard day of trying to save -- or ravage -- human souls these hard working demons and half-breeds have a nice neutral place to let their hair down.

But the best role is played by the exceptional actress Tilda Swinton, who portrays an androgynous angel Gabriel, God's gatekeeper on Earth. She has a grudge against Constantine regarding his efforts to buy his way back into God's good graces. Her scenes with Reeves are the most interesting in the film.

"Constantine" is the feature film directorial debut for music video director Francis Lawrence. Visually, his film is stunning. However, as is often the case in movies heavily layered with special effects, those effects ultimately overwhelm the story.

But "Constantine" does have its pleasures, and Reeves' fan base will probably be pleased with this film. They already know he can't act, and they don't care. Also, there are plenty of young moviegoers who love this type of film genre, and have never met a gory special effect they didn't love.

For all of them, "Constantine" will be something less than purgatory.

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