Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Kevin Brodbin (story)
Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello (screenplay)
Based on the DC Comics/Vertigo series Hell-blazer by Alan Moore
Produced by: Akiva Goldsman
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Gavin Rossdale, Djimon Hounsou

I would like to begin this review with a confession: I’ve never read the Hell-blazer comic.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love Alan Moore. I’ve read his Saga of the Swamp Thing and Watchmen countless times. I’ve just never picked up an issue of Hell-blazer. Having said this, I hope the comic’s legion of devoted readers will forgive what may be a mortal sin in their eyes: I enjoyed the movie Constantine.

For those like myself who have yet to be initiated into the comic’s strange world, Moore has taken Catholic theology and infused it into the film noir detective genre. When John Constantine (Keanu Reeves, not Sting as Moore had envisioned) was born, he was different. He could see things no one else could see—horrid visions of people who were not really people, but “half-breeds”. Some were part angel, others part demon. Of course, his parents thought he was crazy and sent him to an asylum for shock therapy. It didn’t stop the visions, however, and Constantine became so disturbed that he took his own life. As anyone familiar with Catholic doctrine knows, suicides go straight to Hell. John spent only two minutes in that fiery underworld before paramedics were able to revive him, but even a moment in Hell is like an eternity. Now that he knows what awaits him, Constantine has dedicated his life to exorcising demons and killing half-breed monsters in a desperate attempt to earn God’s favor and buy a ticket into Heaven—a goal that has taken on fresh urgency because he’s just learned that he’s dying of lung cancer.

Enter police detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz). She’s a Catholic with a problem. Seems her identical twin, Isabel, who was also committed for seeing demons, just took a flying leap from the hospital roof. Angela can’t believe her devout sister would commit suicide and seeks to prove it was murder. When she views the hospital security tapes from that night, however, she sees poor Isabel was all alone. She also hears her utter a single word: “Constantine.” Determined to find out what happened, she tracks John down and asks for his help.

As they search for clues to solve this mystery, Constantine explains that God and Satan have a standing wager for the souls of all mankind. Angels stay with God in Heaven, demons stay in Hell with their master. There can be no direct contact with human beings, only “influence peddling”—whispers in the ear that may push the good toward righteousness and the bad toward evil. But now something is very wrong. Soldier demons are trying to force their way onto this plain of existence, and a particularly nasty specter attacks Constantine on the street. What is going on?—and what does Angela have to do with it?

Constantine could have been a campy mess, but the filmmakers treat the subject matter seriously. The script does allow for humor when appropriate, but the levity is kept to a minimum. Mysteries unfold for the characters on the screen and the audience as well. As John and Angela try to find their answers, the viewer gets to pick up the rules of the game without long scenes of exposition that would bring the action to a grinding halt. But, as in The Prophecy, the film does play fast and loose with religion. The angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) is once more cast as a villain who is trying to make humanity worthy of God’s love (and going about it in all the wrong ways). There is also mention to books in The Bible that don’t exist. Quoting The Bible is not new to horror (Hell, even Nightmare on Elm Street 4 did that!), but do we really need to make up verses to fit our stories? Maybe it’s just me, but I find this to be laziness on the part of the writers. Here’s a verse that fits the movie to a tee: “You believe because you have seen. How happy are those who believe without seeing.” Constantine does what he does because he has seen Hell, knows it exists, and wants to avoid it at all costs.

And who can blame him?

Director Francis Lawrence, who cut his teeth in music videos, gives us a truly nasty Hell, but his vision of modern day Los Angeles isn’t much better. Naomi Shohan’s production design and David Lazan’s art direction are gritty and bleak. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography is classic noir with very deep blacks, very bright whites, and very muddy colors in between. And the effects crew has worked hard to turn the streets of L.A. into something out of Dante’s inferno (although I still have no great love for computer generated demons).

This is the kind of film that will evoke very strong gut reactions. Based on your love of the comic or your religious background, you will either love it or hate it. I loved it.

If you want to damn me for that, go right ahead.

3 out of 5 stars