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‘Constantine’ is no ‘Matrix 4’

Reeves plays the hero of Alan Moore’s ‘Hellblazer’ graphic novels. By John Hartl

“Constantine,” Keanu Reeves’ latest cult-movie wannabe, is $90 million worth of familiar special effects and, sadly, even more familiar pseudo-theological mumbo-jumbo. But at least it’s more fun than a “Matrix” sequel.

One of the reasons is Tilda Swinton’s dryly funny performance as the androgynous angel Gabriel, who informs Reeves’ character, John Constantine, that he’ll die young (too many cigarettes) and go straight to hell (flashbacks demonstrate why he deserves it). He spends the rest of the movie looking for redemption.

Too bad Swinton has only a couple of major scenes, but she cheekily steals both. Although she told the New York Times recently that she decided to do the picture because “it had the capacity to be a radical political film,” the politically charged lines evidently wound up on the cutting-room floor (“Angels in America” it’s not). In any event, she doesn’t need them.

Reeves appears to be channeling Clint Eastwood, especially during his tight-lipped “Make my day” period, and fortunately it fits the flamboyantly laconic character he’s playing. At one point, he even threatens to step out of the movie by complaining about the script’s groan-worthy punch lines, which “are killing me.” (Was this an improv that made it into the final cut?)

The first-time director, Francis Lawrence, is definitely in a playful, try-anything mood, and the movie’s first hour has surprising charm. His disorienting camera angles and editing techniques frequently freshen what turn out to be genre cliches. Only when it turns into a standard, chest-heaving showdown between good and evil does the picture lose its way and threaten to become an overproduced time-waster.

Based on Alan Moore’s “Hellblazer” graphic novels, which first appeared in the 1980s, “Constantine” begins with a couple of episodes that suggest the early films of Steven Spielberg and William Friedkin. A prolog set in Mexico, where a “Spear of Destiny” has been unearthed, has a Spielberg-like grandeur to it. Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” is openly plundered for a scene in which Constantine attempts to lure a “soldier demon” out of a possessed young girl (Rachel Weisz, made up to look like Linda Blair).

When the girl appears to have committed suicide, her sister Angela (also played by Weisz) sets out to prove that she didn’t kill herself. Angela is determined, and she won’t let go of Constantine until they’ve both revealed secrets about their pasts — and he’s revealed his tough-love feelings for her.

The script, attributed to several writers, makes room for jokes about preserved dragon breath, a hypnotic cat, Bibles with extra pages that are available only in hell, and even that Spear of Destiny. The movie crosses a line at this point and will, at least for some moviegoers, flirt with sacrilege. (Let’s put it this way: Fans of “The Passion of the Christ” will not be amused.)

For others, the real sin of “Constantine” will be its inability to maintain its tone and to make use of several supporting actors (Djimon Hounsou, Shia LeBeouf, Jose Zuniga) who are clearly itching to stretch their roles.