Constantine, based on characters populating the DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer graphic novels, is one of those rare pulpy page-to-screen translations that actually gets it right.
An engrossing mix of atmospheric gothic horror and smart sci-fi that's cemented by intriguing mythology, terrific visual effects, a dry sense of humor and an ideally cast Keanu Reeves, the picture officially heralds the end of the New Year release doldrums.
Appreciative audiences should mark the occasion by creating a sizable boxoffice splash for the Warner Bros. Pictures release. Although it's probably too dark to reach the heights of an X-Men or Spider-Man, international business should be equally impressive, making a sequel definitely within the realm of possibility.
Unlike so many other first-time feature directors who made their name helming music videos, Francis Lawrence -- who created eye-catching clips for Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson and Will Smith, among others -- hasn't opted for a flashy visual style at the expense of story and character.
He quickly gets down to the business of immersing the viewer in Constantine's intriguing environment -- one in which the otherworldly manifestations of heaven and hell are on the verge of being thrown out of their precarious balance right here on Earth.
Specifically speaking, that would be Los Angeles, where Reeves' John Constantine spends his tortured days and nights ensuring that balance isn't knocked out of kilter through less-than-divine intervention.
For the uninitiated, Constantine has been cursed with the lifelong ability to see the true demonic or beatific faces of the "half-breeds" living among us -- intermediaries who have been sent back to Earth to do the bidding of their respective commanders in chief.
An expert in demonology, Constantine has been keeping busy dispatching a disturbing influx of evil half-breeds back to hell, but his intentions are far from being heroic.
Recently diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, the chain-smoking anti-hero is really just in it for himself, hoping that with all that satanic butt-kicking, he might be able to buy his way into heaven.
But his strategy is complicated with the arrival of Angela Dodson (the always welcome Rachel Weisz), a stoical police detective whose sister has committed what appears to be suicide.
There's actually, refreshingly, a lot more plot to go around thanks to clever writing officially credited to Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, but there's the sense that producer Akiva Goldsman also made some contributions to the script, which is filled with great characters.
Among them is Tilda Swinton's gender-blurring Gabriel, Peter Stormare's self-styled Satan (in a white suit), Gavin Rossdale's slick Balthazar and Djimon Hounsou's noncommittal Midnite, whose offbeat nightclub serves as a neutral meeting ground for half-breeds of both persuasions.
But it's Reeves who, outfitted with an economy of dialogue and costume designer Louise Frogley's sleek monochromatic apparel, gets the requisite film noir look and attitude down cold.
He and Weisz, who once again projects a beguiling combination of beauty and intelligence, make for a classically cynical graphic novel couple.
Working in perfect harmony with Lawrence's organic direction, the writing and performances are the technical contributions, particularly those of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Big Fish), production designer Naomi Shohan (Training Day) and visual effects supervisor Michael Fink (the X-Men movies), who succeed in turning downtown Los Angeles into a convincingly hellish Hades on Earth.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures presentsin association with Village Roadshow PicturesA Donners' Co./Batfilm Prods./Weed Road Pictures/3 Arts Entertainment production
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriter: Kevin Brodbin
Based on characters from the Hellblazer graphic novels by: DC Comics/Vertigo
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, Benjamin Melniker
Erwin Stoff, Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Executive producers: Gilbert Adler, Michael Aguilar
Director of photography: Philippe Rousselot
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Editor: Wayne Wahrman
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Visual effects supervisor: Michael Fink
Music: Brian Tyler and Klaus Badelt
John Constantine: Keanu Reeves
Angela Dodson/Isabel: Rachel Weisz
Chaz: Shia LaBoeuf
Gabriel: Tilda Swinton
Father Hennessey: Pruitt Taylor Vince
Midnite: Djimon Hounsou
Balthazar: Gavin Rossdale
Satan: Peter Stormare
MPAA rating: R
Running time -- 117 minutes
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