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This Limbo Doesn't Rock

'Constantine' Gives The Devil His Due But Not the Viewer

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page C01

Between Heaven and Hell there is always the handy purgatory of seedy Sunset Boulevard, which shows up plenty in devil movies as a reliable L.A. conceit: Hollywood really believes it's got a lock on the infernal. In the Goth mind-set of who-knows-how-many screenwriters, there can apparently be nothing creepier than a dive/dance bar populated by the demonic undead, in which you'll find your Lestats, your Lost Boys, your Catherine Deneuves.

And so the City of Angels is a natural set piece for "Constantine," a dreary (and possibly profane, for certain Sunday schoolers) action thriller rife with theo-core cliches owed to everyone from Linda Blair to the Baltimore Catechism to "Oh God, You Devil!" It isn't long before Keanu Reeves's freelance exorcist character, John Constantine, makes his semi-regular visit to the Devil Bar (or whatever), where the beautiful demon clientele (Gwen Stefani's husband among them; demons adore pinstriped Armani suits) couldn't be blamed for mistaking Constantine for Neo from the "Matrix" trilogy: Reeves wears essentially the same black wardrobe, does the same moves, shows off the same galling lack of acting ability, but with a slightly different haircut. (Is there any actor besides Keanu who's gotten more employment for doing so little?)

Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is back from Hell and looking to save his soul through a combination of good works and special effects. (David James -- Warner Bros. Pictures)

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Constantine, whose story comes to us via a DC/Vertigo comic-book series for grown-ups, spends his time trying to redeem his soul: As a child, young Connie could clairvoyantly see who among us were in fact possessed by demons from Hell. In his teens, he couldn't take it anymore and killed himself and went to Hell, which looks like Texas chili in a blender set on slow speed -- it's very swirly and dark orange. Hell sent Constantine back to Earth, and Heaven won't have him, but luckily he's found an enormous loft apartment above an old Hollywood bowling alley, and it has original tile floors. (Smokin'!)

Tilda Swinton, playing a menacing but ridiculous angel Gabriel, sometimes taunts Constantine about this limbo dilemma -- he's part of a game, a power struggle between God and Satan, and it's something that's going to involve a lot of quick-edit cuts of spooky relics and computer-generated bad guys. Constantine has fatalistically chain-smoked his way into a pretty nasty case of lung disease, so time is running short for him to save his soul. He's doing this by seeking out the possessed and exorcising their demons.

Much of "Constantine" simply portends. Oh, how it portends, from the opening exorcism Constantine performs in a barrio tenement, to the mumbo-jumbo of quasi-religious imagery that concludes the movie. Markings on morgue corpses portend. Locusts portend. Mirrors portend. Symbology runs amok here, and characters are always looking things up in crumbly tomes to verify the true meaning of this or that, which may play fairly well to the same mania that propelled "The Da Vinci Code" to cult status.

If the Catholic Church wasn't so wrapped up in other litigations, you wonder if it could sue some filmmakers for ancient trademark infringements, or some sort of character defamation. Priests here are seen as corpulent and alcoholic, as usual in movies; praying is seen as a naive waste of time by the machine-gun toting Constantine.

Even a lapsed Catholic will groan aloud at some of the misrepresentations of sacramental and theological dogma, and not only at the still-persistent fixation on the seldom-used rites of exorcism. Rachel Weisz shows up as an LAPD detective seeking a funeral Mass for her twin sister, who has mysteriously committed suicide while in a hospital psych ward. She is told by her priest that in no uncertain terms will the church perform a funeral for any suicide victim. (Wrong. That teaching is far outdated; at the discretion of parish priests or bishops, the church's Order for Christian Funerals allows prayers and funeral rites for all its dearly departed.)

But enough catechism class. Of course you'd rather talk about the Spear of Destiny! (It's a relic that was believed to have been used to stab Christ's torso as he hung on the cross.) It's been found! Wrapped in a Nazi flag in a Mexican garbage dump! Are you with us?

Manuel, the stereotypical peasant who scavenges the spear, is immediately zombified and begins his trek to Los Angeles to use the Spear to call forth Mammon, the Son of Satan. It's going to be a long trip, and only Constantine and Rachel Weisz (and the ingratiating Shia LaBeouf and don't forget Djimon Hounsou as the Voodoo Pimp Daddy from the Devil Bar) stand in the way of the rise of the Antichrist.

Swedish actor Peter Stormare, who played the creepy eyeball-transplant surgeon in "Minority Report," shows up and shames the acting skills of Keanu et al. with his surprisingly understated (and, as such, convincingly frightening) performance as Satan. After so many cheap sci-fi devils, it's a brief pleasure to be tempted by Stormare's gentle evil, but it's a fleeting one, and soon enough he slithers back to the chili swirls of Hades. Thus concludes this hackneyed, cheap-looking episode of "CSI: Revelation."

Constantine (121 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, violent scenes and demonic imagery.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company