Why is Hollywood so determined to mess with success? Given a long-running, highly celebrated book, comic, or television franchise to adapt, why would a producer say, "Sure, The Da Vinci Code sold millions of copies, but moviegoers don't wanna watch some guy solving a mystery with old European art. Couldn't we make him a hot chick, like Lara Croft? And put her in Vegas? Maybe she could find her clues in today's hottest hip-hop tracks. And could we give her a hot bisexual sidekick? And a cute dog?"
Ask the filmmakers behind Constantine, a comic-book adaptation that chucks most of its source material out the window during the opening act, replacing it with a complicated but undeveloped mythology and the most generic leading man possible. As presented in more than 200 issues of the cult-hit comic Hellblazer, John Constantine is a wry conman with no extraordinary abilities beyond the gift of gab and a thorough versing in the occult. He was conceived as a quintessential Londoner modeled after Sting, all spiky blonde hair and bitter smirk. Constantine re-imagines him as a stone-faced, charisma-free supernatural superhero, a Los Angeles exorcist with magical special-effects-generating powers and the grim demeanor of an noir gumshoe. As played by Keanu Reeves, he's The Matrix's Neo in God-mode and in a perpetual snit.
A plotline drawn from various severely retreaded Hellblazer story arcs has Reeves facing his own mortality: Lung cancer has condemned him to the grave, and a long-ago suicide attempt has condemned him to hell. Having visited the place, he knows what he'd be in for, so he attempts to get to heaven by fighting hellspawn and bullying the half-breed angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton). Meanwhile, he's caught up in the throes of an incipient demon invasion, which is tied to a mystical artifact and an ingénue cop (Rachel Weisz) with a mysteriously dead sister. The plot doesn't so much unfold as sprawl in all directions, with occasional pauses for bare-bones exposition and no pauses to fill in the plot holes, but first-time feature director Francis Lawrence at least knows Reeves' limits, and pegs the film on as much demon combat and as little dialogue as possible.
Still, while Constantine works reasonably well as an energetic effects-fest like Hellboy or Van Helsing, virtually anyone but Reeves would have made a better John Constantine. Swinton is terrific, Holes' Shia LaBeouf makes the most of a thankless role as Reeves' hapless apprentice, and even Weisz at least seems to believe in her character, but Reeves is a wooden icon where the story demands a complex and sympathetic figure. His rigid delivery makes Constantine's occult backstory sound pretentious and silly, and converts Constantine himself into a repressed cipher. The film's biggest revision isn't in not making him blonde, or not making him British. It's in not making him human.