Keanu Reeves peculiar style of acting, with its minimalist reactions and meek gazes, found its best expression in the Matrix trilogy of 1999 to 2003. Sadly those films which make a virtue of his impassive acting remain a rare occasion in his career (Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993) is another notable exception). Whether the fault of the filmmakers or the result of his own ill-advised choices, the films in which he stars continue to misuse and misrepresent the actor and do little to counter the popular notion that Keanu can’t act, and his latest film, Constantine (2005), is no different.

Taken from the DC/Vertigo comic series Hellblazer, Constantine (the name was changed to avoid confusion with Hellboy [2004] and other namesakes) transposes the setting and look of the original character, a man born with the ability to see angels and demons, from a blond-haired Londoner to a jet-black Angelino. The film opens in Mexico and sees the Spear of Destiny (the blade that pierced Christ’s side as he hung on the cross) being found and brought back to LA by a possessed man. This sets in motion a number of extraordinary supernatural events that leads the cynical, chain-smoking Constantine to suspect that something may be amiss in the balance between Heaven and Hell.

Writers Jamie Delano and Kevin Brodin have incorporated a number of story strands from the different issues of the Hellblazer series into this film. The most prominent is from #41 The Beginning of the End which opened the Dangerous Habits storyline, and sees Constantine discovering that he has lung cancer. In the film this is one of the more interesting aspects of the character and it encourages some humorous exchanges between Constantine and the Archangel Gabriel, played by the androgynous Orlando (1992) star Tilda Swinton – ‘Constantine, you’re gonna die because you’ve smoked 30 cigarettes a day since you were 15. So, basically… you’re fucked’. These observations may quash the hopes of anyone looking for some deep theological insight on the nature of life and death, but they are refreshingly funny and often needed in a movie of such persistent doom and gloom.

The failings of Constantine, though, ultimately reside with its former music video director Francis Lawrence. Despite his best intentions to ground the film in a vein of bleak reality and keep the CGI devilry to a minimum, his lack of experience in directing actors means that most scenes without a haggard demon or burst of hellfire feel simply redundant. Reeves is woefully miscast and lacks the internal expressivity to give proper gusto to the role of a man riddled with cancer and condemned to hell. Similarly Rachel Weisz, in her second film with Reeves after Chain Reaction (1996), appears profoundly bored and fails to convince as policewoman Angela Dodson, a staunch Catholic whose twin sister’s suicide precipitates the climax of the movie.