Smoking isn't good for you, but it is pretty cool. Whoever does Tilda Swinton's hair needs shooting. (Ditto, while we're on the subject, the genius behind Rachel Weisz's rampant eyebrows.) Heaven is real. So is Hell. And while everyone from the former looks like they were styled by Jean-Paul Gaultier on an off day, the folk from the hot place either have half their heads missing and gurgle a lot or spend their days mincing about, camp as Butlins. These are just some of the intriguing revelations on offer in Constantine - one of the most entertaining shambles to bowl along in ages.
Warner Bros' other comic-book offering for 2005, Constantine has much in common with its elder (and one can only hope better) brother. Where Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins promises to cloak the Caped Crusader in a darker hue than the gaudy last two outings, Francis Lawrence's adaptation of DC Comics/Vertigo's Hellblazer ratchets the moody gloom to 11. Where both are based on successful franchises (Hellblazer remains Vertigo's longest running monthly series, with more than 200 issues and 15 graphic novels to its name) and have therefore faced inevitable flack from the fanbase, the odd grumble about the new Batmobile is nothing compared to the ire that's greeted some of Lawrence's decisions. The prime candidates being: changing the name (to avoid confusion with Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy), shifting location from London to LA and casting the distinctly brunette, amicable and very American Keanu Reeves as the hero - previously a blonde Brit armed with a never-ending pack of tabs and theright hump.
Reeves first read the script in a rare piece of downtime on the set of The Matrix Revolutions and it's easy to see what so appealed. The antithesis of Neo and his selfless "Superman thing", Constantine's titular toughnut is a reluctant bastard whose concern isn't so much saving mankind as trying to con, buy and blast his way into Heaven; he needs to trade in his one-way ticket to Hell (the result of a previous suicide bid) in exchange for a little demonic policing on behalf of the Big Fella.
After an awkward start struggling with the outlandish dialogue, Reeves has a ball, cynically coming to terms with his terminal lung cancer, squaring up against preening queen nemesis Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale, of the platinum-selling Bush) and reigniting the chemistry with Weisz that so sizzled last time out in, oh...Chain Reaction.
The greatest weapon in Constantine's arsenal, however, is just what a refreshing change it is from the superhero norm and the studio and crew deserve credit for trying to flip the standard blockbuster bravado on its head (certainly one can imagine that Robert Rodriguez, with the equally gritty Sin City imminent, will be keeping an eye on its opening weekend). Sam Raimi's Peter Parker has always felt the burden of his talents and Bryan Singer's Wolverine has always had attitude to match those sideburns, but compared to this nicotine-stained, demon-slaying hard-ass, they come across as minor-league whingers. And don't get us started on The Punisher, meanwhile, with Thomas Jane trying to act the angsty vigilante in a T-shirt two sizes too big and not nearly enough sense of humour to underpin the actioner's overblown theatrics.
Indeed, it's the combination of Constantine's wonderfully tongue-in-cheek perspective and Lawrence framing every shot, a la Ang Lee in Hulk, as an individual comic-book cell that makes it such a breeze. As for action, aside from one sequence that's uncannily similar to a recent jeans advert (you'll know it when you see it), the movie's set-pieces are accomplished and explosive, the best of which riffs on Blade's nightclub sprinkler scene to equally impressive effect. Were there one more such hard-hitting sequence and were Hell not quite so reminiscent of Frodo's yomp in Mordor, the slightly saggy mid-section could have been drum-taut. Then there's the ending... To say it all descends into a climax of CG silliness is like saying Michael Jackson is a bit odd. Credibility is blown away by Stormare's scenery-chewing, though thoroughly enjoyable, turn as Him Downstairs - pitching the Devil somewhere between Julian Clary and De Niro in Angel Heart; a gay Bobby, but without the boiled eggs. It's an insane performance in an insane final act packed with kitsch hilarity, gleeful humour and not a great deal of sense. If this is Hell, we're going to die laughing.
Daft but dead enjoyable, Constantine will rile purists but please at 'plexes, with an infectious enthusiasm that's hard to resist. Elektra this is not.
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