Visual effects, startling images not enough to hook fans

John Constantine has the ability to see things that other people cannot. He once tried to commit suicide and was dead for two minutes. During these two minutes, he traveled to hell and back. Since his return, he is able to use his powers to recognize those working for Satan.

Constantine is a chain smoker, suffering from the effects of lung cancer and aware that he is destined for hell when he dies. In an effort to buy his way into heaven, he works to fight Satan’s helpers and the evil they bring to humanity.

The film opens with a startling exorcism that sets the pace for the rest of the film. While “Constantine” is not psychologically scary, it is graphically frightening. Director Francis Lawrence, a popular music video director, capitalizes on his strengths and many of the scenes of the film incorporate the high energy that is often found in music videos.

Based on the DC/Vertigo comic book “Hellblazer,” “Constantine” incorporates some very interesting special effects and quite a few startling images. I spent a good deal of the film with my hand over my eyes, peeking through my fingers, afraid of what disturbing images I would be presented with next.

While the film enjoys a talented cast, arresting visuals and some fairly provocative ideas, it never quite comes together. The dialogue is often forced and this makes the material seem more comical and less stimulating than it could have been. The first half of the film, with the exception of the visuals, is otherwise fairly dull. It does pick up about halfway through, and for a brief time I cared about the characters and what would happen to them.

However, by the end of the film, I was back to feeling removed and disinterested. I was not rooting for good or evil because I was never hooked enough to care who won or lost. A part of me was curious to see how the film would end, but in a film that poses good verses evil, curiosity is not enough. There should be a sense of urgency, a realization of impact and “Constantine” does not possess these crucial elements.

Constantine is played by Keanu Reeves, who handles the awkward material as best he can. However, he seems detached and mechanical, in typical Reeves fashion. While that style can add to films like “The Matrix,” it only draws away from “Constantine.” He is the character that the audience is expected to follow, yet we never feel close to him.

Rachel Weisz (“About a Boy,” “The Shape of Things,” “Envy”) plays a detective who teams up with Constantine after her twin sister’s suicide. Weisz is a talented actress and she handles the role well. Djimon Hounsou (“Amistad,” “Gladiator,” “In America”) is great as a character called Midnite and Tilda Swinton (“The Deep End,” “Young Adam,” “The Statement”) joins the cast as the angel Gabriel.

“Constantine” is a grab bag of ideas, and there is a lot going on both visually and thematically. I suspect that the film will hook some devoted fans, but for me, it never came together as it could have. “Constantine” is at once both intriguing and tedious, yet it is always ambitious. Ultimately, the film has big ideas, it just never quite achieves them in its execution.