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(2005) ** 1/2 R
121 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Francis Lawrence. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Tilda Swinton, Pruitt Taylor-Vince.

Constantine is a Christian "horror movie" in both senses of the phrase: like many of Hollywood's supernatural thrillers, it runs on Christian imagery and therefore benefits from belief, but it will also rankle many of the faithful with its sarcastic attitude toward the almighty ("God's a kid with an art farm," says one character. "He's not planning anything").

Comic-book fans—who are nearly as touchy as Christians—may resent the film's irreverent treatment of the Constantine canon, trailblazed by Alan Moore in the pages of Hellblazer (step one: change London to Los Angeles; step two: cast Keanu Reeves). As for me, raised on both Catholicism and comic books, I found Constantine to be reasonably satisfying cinematic junk food.

Keanu Reeves plays John Constantine, the chain-smoking Joe Friday of the supernatural who's already died once and is now trying to buy his way out of hell by battling demonic half-breeds on earth. He reluctantly teams up with Rachel Weisz's city-of-angels cop to understand the suicide of her sister and its implications in the angel-demon struggle that leads us, inexorably, to the apocalypse. If your eyes have already glazed over, abandon all hope.

Part of the appeal of Constantine is its puzzle plotting, propelled by puckish humor (dig Shia LaBeouf as Constantine's eager apprentice "Chas") and the freaky visuals whipped up by Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It) and visual effects supervisor Michael Fink (X2). In one sequence, Constantine laments the ruination of a $200 shirt (where does he get his money, anyway?); in another, he plops bare feet into a tub of water, stares into a cat's face, and literally goes to hell.

Hell's blazing junkyard gives Constantine a clue, as well as extra motivation to wheel and deal for his eternal soul. Principally, Constantine's pitch to God involves working against Mammon (son of Satan), who needs only the long-lost Spear of Destiny and a prone psychic to cross over into our world. Constantine corners the angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, but one of a deliciously debauched supporting cast) with a simple question: "What does he want from me?" "Only the usual," she drawls. "Self-sacrifice. Belief."

The usual for supernatural thrillers is to starts off like gangbusters, settle into familiar theatrics, and finally crawl through the ol' Big Finish straddling this plane and the next. Constantine complies with well-designed opening sequences (one establishing Mammon and one introducing Constantine as an exorcist par excellence), a flabby investigative midsection that kills time and expendable characters, and the muddled hooey of the climactic showdown. That said, Constantine has enough crackerjack sequences and admirably trippy rhythms for a recommendation. NOTE: stick around after the credits for an eye-popping coda.

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