Keanu Reeves' latest man-in-black fantasy is slightly better than "The Matrix" sequels, which is tantamount to damnation with faint praise. Casting its star as a chain-smoking exorcist -- someone who's literally been to hell and back -- this adaptation of the graphic novel "Hellblazer" blazes few new trails and bogs down in a confusing narrative muddle. Atmospheric and noirish in the manner of a poor man's "Blade Runner," pic possesses powerful imagery but lacks feature-length substance and will need a bountiful harvest of opening-weekend souls before a stench resembling brimstone dowses its box office flame.

Keanu Reeves’ latest man-in-black fantasy is slightly better than “The Matrix” sequels, which is tantamount to damnation with faint praise. Casting its star as a chain-smoking exorcist — someone who’s literally been to hell and back — this adaptation of the graphic novel “Hellblazer” blazes few new trails and bogs down in a confusing narrative muddle. Atmospheric and noirish in the manner of a poor man’s “Blade Runner,” pic possesses powerful imagery but lacks feature-length substance and will need a bountiful harvest of opening-weekend souls before a stench resembling brimstone dowses its box office flame.

Director Francis Lawrence’s lengthy musicvideo resume includes award-winning work with Justin Timberlake, but the major malfunction here is more of the storytelling than wardrobe variety.

The biggest problem is that most viewers not familiar with pic’s relatively obscure source won’t be able to comprehend the movie’s arcane set of rules. What’s left, then, is an episodic series of encounters — some more visually arresting than others — with no strong throughline pointing to where the action’s ultimately heading.

Nor does it help that Reeves must wrestle with what amounts to a Philip Marlowe-type role as the world-weary and dour John Constantine — a man cursed by his ability to see the demons that venture into our plane. Once driven to a suicide attempt by those visions, Constantine seeks to gain redemption from the scorching fate that awaits him because of that act by dispatching Satan’s minions back to hell. Meanwhile, his cancer-ridden lungs leave him facing his own fast-approaching expiration date.

“I already know exactly where I’m going,” he grumbles.

Peculiar goings-on indicate that something big and sinister is coming as demons violate the devil’s pact with God by invading our mortal sphere. Along the way, Constantine encounters a cop, Angela (Rachel Weisz), directed to him following the death of her twin sister, whose psychic abilities somehow figure in the plot by the otherworldly forces attempting to “cross over.”

Constantine is surrounded by a reasonably colorful group of supporting players, though few receive enough screentime to establish much of a presence. The roster includes a wild-haired aide (Max Baker), eager sidekick Chas (“Project Greenlight’s” Shia LeBeouf), a beady-eyed priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and a club-owning witch doctor (Djimon Hounsou).

The principally two-character piece nevertheless centers on Reeves and Weisz, punctuated by effective if fleeting special effects but saddled with a malnourished plot. Beyond the occasional wry aside, Reeves doesn’t bring enough heft to his character to sell the tough-guy dialogue, and under the circumstances, Weisz can’t do much more than come across as a damsel in distress.

Muted cinematography and the grunge-chic decor also contribute to a lifeless tone, and much of the exposition is so garbled in portentous nonsense as to recall Rick Moranis’ possessed ranting in “Ghostbusters.”

Indeed, whatever meticulous plotting might have gone into the novel, the movie too often seems to be conjuring up twists as it goes along. By the time the climactic sequence arrives, even Satan himself (a well-cast Peter Stormare) can’t generate the heat required to salvage things.

Pic does win a few points for style if not substance — from the impressively realized depiction of hell and Tilda Swinton’s striking winged angel Gabriel to Brian Tyler and Klaus Badelt’s brooding score.

Reeves’ affiliation with “The Matrix” trilogy has burnished his popularity within the comics/sci-fi realm, but such goodwill goes only so far. Like the demonic hordes, “Constantine” looks destined to discover that in the harsh light of day, it’s not always easy to cross over.

Constantine

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures presentation of a Donners' Co./Batfilm Prods./Weed Road Pictures/3 Arts Entertainment production. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Erwin Stoff, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Akiva Goldsman. Executive producers, Gilbert Adler, Michael Aguilar. Co-producers, Josh McLaglen, Cherylanne Martin. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay, Kevin Brodbin, Frank Cappello, from a story by Brodbin. Based on characters from the DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer graphic novels.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Philippe Rousselot; editor, Wayne Wahrman; music, Brian Tyler, Klaus Badelt; production designer, Naomi Shohan; art director, David Lazan; set decorator, Douglas A. Mowat; costume designer, Louise Frogley; sound (Dolby Digital-DTS Digital-SDDS), Willie Burton; supervising sound editor, Skip Lievsay; sound designer, Jeremy Peirson; visual effects supervisor, Michael Fink; assistant director, McLaglen; second unit director, Fink; stunt coordinator, R.A. Rondell; casting, Denise Chamian. Reviewed at the Mann Chinese Theater, Los Angeles, Jan. 28, 2005. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 120 MIN.

With

John Constantine - Keanu Reeves Angela Dodson/Isabel Dodson - Rachel Weisz Chas - Shia LeBeouf Midnite - Djimon Hounsou Beeman - Max Baker Father Hennessy - Pruitt Taylor Vince Balthazar - Gavin Rossdale Gabriel - Tilda Swinton Satan - Peter Stormare
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