The opening credits of Constantine proudly announce that the movie is the first popcorn property lifted from the pages of DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. If seeing that "mature readers" offshoot elevated to the franchise-farming status of Mighty Marvel itself makes you feel old, you'll think you've become a Satan-worshipping teen again when you witness the borderline-blasphemous carnage that sexes up this lurid but honest exercise in quasi-religious bloodletting. It's as if the customarily clueless Warner Bros. realized that excessive cutesiness was what hobbled Hellboy, and resolved to make its adaptation of Jaime Delano and Garth Ennis' Hellblazer as grim and nihilistic as a major studio release can be.
What exactly can a finicky ticket buyer expect? Suicide. Shootings. Attempted drowning. Arson. Mutilation. Chain smoking. And that's all on the part of the hero.
Welcome to the world of John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), a no-nonsense exorcist working the turf between the mortal and the eternal. Gifted since his youth with the ability to see the extradimensional perils lurking all around us, Constantine spends his lonely days hunting down and exterminating the treacherous demon/ human hybrids (and half-breed angels) that the movie asserts are always trying to interfere in earthly affairs. But John is no saint: With his valiant deeds, he's attempting to "buy" his way into a heaven that's been decreed off-limits to him (according, that is, to the Catholic notions of sin and damnation that the movie mostly accepts as, er, gospel).
The story kicks into gear when the corporeal plane is broached by creatures that appear to be 100 percent Satanic a cosmic no-no that will come to determine the fates of a lady cop (Rachel Weisz), an alcoholic priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and Constantine's young chauffeur (Holes' Shia LaBeouf), a mouthy student of the occult who's always hankering for a piece of the action.
Better appreciated as a collection of clever Gothic set pieces than a blindingly original narrative, the movie keeps us amused with such whaddaya-know sights as a swarm of maggots that reconfigures itself into a hulking brute with a mean left hook. There's also a social club for the supernatural that's run by a former witch doctor (Djimon Hounsou) and looks a lot like Independent Bar with a better budget. You have to admire the glee with which screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello attach these neato constructs to standard Bible lore, at one point even suggesting that there's a lengthier, more complete edition of the Good Book in hell. (Somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey, Kevin Smith can be heard crying, "And they picketed me?")
It'll shock absolutely nobody that Reeves' starring portrayal is by far the film's biggest minus. The onetime Ted "Theodore" Logan just isn't very good at impersonating macho remove; there's something more than slightly ridiculous about hearing him emit world-weary profundities in a slowed-down growl that's apparently influenced by Eastwood but, on at least one occasion, comes out sounding like Gary Cole in Office Space. ("Um … yeeeeaaaah. I'm gonna need you little devils to go back to Hades right now so you can work all day Saturday. Sunday, too.") Still, any movie that casts Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel has its heart in the right place and a serious screw loose two things worth wishing for any time you lay your eight bucks down.