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'Constantine': Far From Heaven

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page WE41

KEANU REEVES is maturing into a sort of senior dude. After all, the actor turns (brace yourselves) 41 in September. There are telltale lines in the face now. That skin is starting to say "shelf life." I say this with a certain existential beam because aging is not only inevitable but cool to see on an actor you've spent time with over the years. It means it's okay for you to get old since they're doing it in Hollywood.

Why get into Reeves's aging process? Because in "Constantine," you need something to study in those long-winded stretches between special-effects set pieces (the only good thing about this flawed movie). And if you are a fan of the "Hellblazer" comic book series, on which this movie is based, you'll definitely need a distraction. The relation between "Constantine" and its source material is, at best, superfluous. The disparity starts with the original John Constantine (Reeves's character) being from Liverpool, England. Reeves from the city of John and Paul? As if.

As John Constantine, Keanu Reeves is on a supernatural mission to exorcise demons -- and find his own redemption -- in "Constantine," a thriller based on the "Hellblazer" comic book series. (David James -- Warner Bros.)

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In the movie, Constantine, a sort of demon-buster, has been to hell and back. He can reenter the underworld when necessary. (It takes being in contact with water and astrally breaking into the other dimension; you know, the stuff Reeves does all the time.) He is on a long-term quest to redeem himself. I can't remember what for, but he is clearly a busy man, either exorcising the satanically possessed or sending half-breeds (demon-humans) back to hell, where they belong.

His main mission involves helping Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), whose twin sister, Isabel (also played by Weisz), has plunged into hell, after an apparent suicide leap. Angela is convinced some dark force was behind her sister's death since Isabel was a staunch Catholic and would never take her own life. There are interested parties watching Constantine as he helps Angela: the angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) and the Big Bad Guy From Below himself, played with amusing campiness by Peter Stormare.

"Constantine" has some great visual passages to do with images of hell, burning and all that kind of spiritually apocalyptic business. Filmmaker Francis Lawrence, a former music video director, creates a nice comic book look with these scenes, as well as oblique and extreme camera angles -- just as you'd see in the comics. But the screenplay by Frank A. Cappello and Kevin Brodbin is only interesting for a few characters, hardly the story. It invests too much down-and-dull time with Constantine and Angela. And although he's occasionally amusing as Constantine's lackey, Chas Chandler, Shia LaBeouf (a transparent attempt to draw in preteen audiences to an R-rated film) brings nothing extra to the movie.

Which brings us back to Reeves, who's endearing for his seeming offhandedness, as if he's only doing this performing thing because a few things fell into place at the right time. Like, he could split anytime and play bass, full time, for his band, Dogstar, you know? Or just hang in some scenic corner of Seattle, shooting the you-know with Gus Van Sant. He makes us think, heck, we could be doing that superhero stuff, too, gum wrapper, balled-up ATM receipt and 12 cents in our back pockets, fighting with supernatural forces and never completely breaking a sweat because, well, come on, it's just a movie. And while Reeves keeps us centered, Swinton takes us back into the otherworldly dimension. Only she can play Gabriel and get away with it, as if she knows Gabriel personally and is simply imitating a well-known acquaintance. Waiting for this two-hour movie to end, you could do worse than enjoy those polar-mint, faraway eyes and the half-smile on that chiseled, alabaster mouth. Now that's a serious angel.

CONSTANTINE (R, 121 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, violence and scenes from hell with dudes who are, like, seriously damned for all time and have no flesh on their bones. Area theaters.

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