The same pop Catholicism that spawned The Exorcist and fueled the horror-film ambience of The Passion of the Christ permeates The Passion of Keanu - I mean, Constantine.
This new graphic-novel-based horror fantasy, starring Keanu Reeves as a private eye of the old sort of underworld, is like an errant altar boy's vision of good and evil, as if the blood-and-guts comic book he kept in his back pocket under his robes bled into the Book of Revelations along with a splash of wine.
It's about as adult and coherent as you'd expect from such a mess. Based in a Los Angeles that borders Hell and in an alternate-L.A. that really is Hades (John Shirley's novelization is much clearer on the cosmology than the movie), John Constantine strives to maintain a balance between the hellish and heavenly forces that influence humans on earth.
He's become used to spotting "half-breeds," humans who are part-angel or part-devil and nudge people toward decency or bad behavior.
But when the movie begins, he sees full-fledged demons invading innocent souls and stalking him in the streets. When a half-breed named Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale) kills off Constantine's friends and demons attack our anti-hero head-on, he's certain that someone in Lucifer's sphere has violated the agreement between God and Satan to keep their hands off ordinary lives.
The storyline may be clumsy and obscure, but its underlying mythology is alarmingly familiar and orthodox. This movie views suicide as a cardinal sin - unhinged by his power to see otherworldly creatures, Constantine committed suicide as a boy but was revived. He "cheated Satan," so Satan has now made him a No. 1 target.
Because Constantine wants to enter heaven when he dies (and he knows death is coming - he's a chain smoker pocked with lung cancer), so he aims to deport the highest possible number of demons and misbehaving half-breeds back to Hades.
Suicide proves to be the major anchor of the plot, and it's gruesome to see it exploited here without a smidgen of comic-book art or inspiration.
Rachel Weisz plays both an L.A. cop, Angela Dodson, and her twin sister, Isabel, who in the opening minutes jumps off a hospital roof. Angela's conviction that Isabel, a devout Catholic, could never have made that leap catalyzes her alliance with Constantine and provokes Reeves' best deadpan humor: "What kind of mental patient kills herself?" asks the always-straight-faced Constantine. "That's just crazy."
But the quest for Isabel makes too much of the movie a near-death experience, especially when they locate her in Satan's realm.
There's no attempt to reconcile the presence of a tormented innocent like Isabel with monsters spilling their brains and guts out in hyperbolic Bosch-like compositions. You just have to accept it as part of an E-ticket ride in a dirty Disneyland of the mind.
As Constantine, Reeves dresses like a Man in Black and intones his lines like Clint Eastwood in his Harry Callahan phase. It's up to the gorgeous, emotionally transparent Weisz to provide some affective sustenance. She does, but it's a Pyrrhic victory.
The music-video-bred director, Francis Lawrence, establishes a so-ugly-it's-handsome look, full of acrid colors, nighttime neon and daytime shadows. But he can't tell a story to save his after-life. Lawrence wrings no suspense from "the Spear of Destiny" making its way toward L.A., even though this fateful relic pierced Jesus on the cross and, the movie says, may spark an apocalypse.
Lawrence's leaning on Catholic imagery isn't as funny as he thinks and reeks of imaginative poverty. Is it hilarious or just bloody obvious that demons can short-circuit all the lights on a street except for those on a Madonna in a religious store? The vaunted special effects amount to super-charged creepy-crawlies.
Characters like a seedy, bespectacled helpmate who brings Constantine arcane religious weapons are just roughed-up cliches. Tilda Swinton brings some bracing diction and pellucid weirdness to her portrayal of an androgynous Archangel Gabriel, but Peter Stormare is a disappointingly shopworn and campy Satan.
The film's attempts at irony - such as Constantine eyeing a billboard that says "Your time is running out ... to buy a Chevy," or the use of a cross-shaped Holy Shotgun - are heavy on the pedal and the trigger.
The movie targets teens who are irreverent believers. In this half-holy, half-twisted atmosphere, a fellow can flip the bird to Satan even while God is busy resurrecting him. (The novelization explains that God is the one doing the flipping.) It all comes off as a case of filmmakers wanting to have their communion wafer and eat it, too.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Released by Warner Bros.
Time 118 minutes
SUN SCORE * *