“Constantine,” the supernatural thriller now slouching into multiplexes nationwide, is not entirely dismal. There are faint rays of entertainment, even shafts of actual invention. There’s a sudden, out-of-nowhere car-bash that’ll snap your head back; and a fly crawling up from under a guy’s eyelid, which is pretty cool. And there’s an eerie scene with a field full of cows toppling over in succession as an evil figure passes by that really is spooky. There’s also a small, juicy performance by Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale as a crimson-eyed devil in a three-piece suit, with slicked-back hair and a supercilious smirk, who glides through the picture like a headwaiter from … well, Hell.
Unfortunately, “Constantine” is a little too muddled and way too erratically paced (especially toward the end, where it sags woefully) to command much interest. It’s a fairly expensive FX movie, and while some of the effects, as noted, are cleverly worked-up, the picture seems more often to be on CGI autopilot — the snarling fiends that creep through its fiery underworld are too cartoonish to be menacing, and one particular infernal creature — a complicated mess of writhing serpents and roiling cockroaches — is too ungainly a conception to register as anything more than run-of-the-mill computer-spawn.
This is too bad, because the original material from which the movie is drawn is rich with promise. The character of John Constantine, a hard-boiled British occult investigator who does weary battle with Satan’s evil, half-human minions here on Earth, was introduced in a 1985 installment of Alan Moore’s groundbreaking series of “Swamp Thing” comics. He has since made his way, in a haze of cigarette smoke and bad hangovers, through more than 200 issues of his own “Hellblazer” books.
Constantine is not a nice guy. He’s a con artist who manipulates his friends and sometimes hangs them out to dry (and occasionally die). Doomed to Hell by a childhood suicide attempt (like “The Exorcist,” the Constantine mythology is rooted in useful Catholic liturgical precepts), his main concern in life is to somehow get right with God in time to avoid being consigned to the abyss, where his anti-Satanic efforts here on Earth have caused much gnashing of fangs, and his fate would therefore be extra-unpleasant, not to mention endless. Constantine’s philosophy, you might say, is: to Hell with everybody else.
The movie relocates Constantine from London to Los Angeles, and turns him from English into Keanu Reeves, who prowls the streets of L.A. in new-wavish black suit, tie and raincoat, providing unsolicited assistance to local cops whenever a demon-related crisis flares up, which is more often than you might think. He is assisted in these pursuits by a wise-cracking young apprentice, Chas (Shia LaBeouf), and by a geeky armorer named Beeman (Max Baker), who’s eccentrically headquartered in a bowling alley, back behind the pin-lifts, and who provides Constantine with such specialized hardware as a cross-shaped assault gun and a knuckleduster forged from ancient, consecrated gold.
Constantine has just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer (prompting him to cut back his tobacco habit to about three packs a day), and so is more intensely concerned than usual with the fate of his soul. He has to do something redemptively selfless, and pretty quick. He consults the angel Gabriel (played by Tilda Swinton, for some reason), but she tells him there’s no way. He also fails to get much help from a colorful associate named Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), an inscrutable crime boss and voodoo adept whose purgatorial nightclub, the Tarot, is a neutral cocktail spot for off-duty half-angels and demi-demons alike. (I think I’ve actually been in this place.)
Then Constantine is approached by an attractive police detective named Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz). Angela’s sister — who also possessed Constantine’s ability to spot undercover demons in a crowd — has just leapt to her death off the roof of a mental hospital. The cops are calling it suicide, but Angela knows better, and Constantine soon comes to agree. (“I’ve been seeing some unusual soul traffic lately,” he muses.) Something big and really devilish is about to go down, and Constantine must stop it. Angela must help. And we, alas, must keep watching.
The movie labors throughout under a mounting burden of trivial effects and energy-sapping narrative lulls. Its climactic sequence, staged in a hospital hydrotherapy room, has all the apocalyptic atmosphere of a YMCA swimming-pool frolic, and it refuses to come to an end long after an end is sorely required. When Lucifer himself finally shows up, he turns out to be a leering, middle-aged swinger in a white disco suit (played by Peter Stormare with a lunatic abandon that outstrips even the psychonaut eye surgeon he concocted in “Minority Report”). Seldom has a finale so determinedly lurid been so flat and uninvolving.
“Constantine” might have worked better in other hands. Different writers, for one thing, and a different director. (First-timer Francis Lawrence is a music-video veteran best-known for his work with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.) And probably a different star, too. I’ve always liked Keanu Reeves. He may not have a lot of range as an actor (I know, I know), but with his throaty, confiding voice and his distinctively lagged reactions, he has a very particular screen presence. In a movie like “The Matrix,” he can be perfect. But he’s too guilelessly appealing to carry off the cold-bastard character of John Constantine. Even when he’s icily informing Angela that her recently deceased sister is probably in Hell, being “ripped apart over and over, in screaming, brutal agony,” you can’t help thinking, “Hey, it’s Keanu — he probably doesn’t mean it the way it sounds.” And then you think, “Hey, there are worse torments than that.” Because you’re sitting through one.