Dir: Francis Lawrence.US. 2005. 121mins.

The Matrix meets The Exorcist in Constantine, orat least that how things superficially appear. In fact, while it does sharesome characteristics - including its distributors and star Keanu Reeves - withthe Wachowski brothers' trilogy, this graphic novel adaptation from Warner andVillage Roadshow also has enough atmosphere and attitude to stand on its own asan enjoyable if overblown fantasy-horror yarn with a dark theological bent.

A Matrix-sized grossseems unlikely, but Constantine certainly looks like a better bet at thebox office - and as a potential franchise starter - than last summer's Catwoman,the first result of Warner's push to develop new movie properties from thecharacters in the studio's DC Comics stable.

The film opens in a fewAsian and European territories this week, and the international marketplacewill probably provide Constantine, as it did with all three of the Matrixmovies, with the majority of its total gross. Audience interest should be especiallypiqued in strongly Catholic countries and notable performances by a couple ofnon-US actors might give the film an extra boost in some territories. Changesmade in the transition from graphic novel to movie (the source stories are verymuch located in the UK) might cause a bit of a backlash among some purist comicbook fans.

In the US, the film opensnext week against little direct competition, offering fans their first majordose of Keanu since the end of the Matrix saga. But Warner will still havesome work to do: lesser-known comic book adaptations have struggled lately atthe domestic box office and Constantine's dark side might not be theeasiest sell to mainstream US audiences.

Best known from the Hellblazerseries of DC Comics/Vertigo graphic novels, the John Constantine character wasoriginally co-created - as an edgy, London-based Brit - by Alan Moore (TheLeague of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell and the upcoming VFor Vendetta among others). But the British comic book writer, who oftendistances himself from movies based on his work, has no credit on the film (noris he even mentioned in the press materials).

In the film, Reeves'Constantine is an American living in seedy downtown Los Angeles, a bitter butcapable loner who once attempted suicide and is now trying to wipe out that sinby using his ability to see - and fight with - the half-breed demons that walkthe earth in human form.

The script, by FrankCappello (Timeline) and Irish-born Kevin Brodbin (Mindhunters),has Constantine crossing paths with detective Angela Dobson (Weisz, from TheMummy). Dobson is suspicious about her twin sister's recent suicide andwhen she and Constantine start to investigate - by briefly visiting Hell, amongother things - they discover that the balance in the world between good andevil is about to be catastrophically changed.

Making his feature debut,acclaimed music video director Francis Lawrence gives the film someeye-catching video-style imagery without allowing the visuals to obliteratecharacter and plot altogether. The script sometimes gets bogged down inquasi-theological exposition but it usually returns to the story in time topreserve dramatic momentum.

The effects - used mainly tocreate the variety of hellish creatures that Constantine has to battle - areoccasionally synthetic looking or cheesy, but they're used quite sparingly andthey're often quite imaginative. Most impressive are the sequences depictingHell as a parallel version of our own world, in this case a kind of post-apocalypticLos Angeles immersed in a perpetual firestorm.

Reeves plays the titlecharacter with his usual cool detachment and a vocal delivery that sounds likeClint Eastwood's Dirty Harry drawl. He gives the character a bit of attitude,though it's hard to escape the feeling that a more emotional actor - comic-bookfan Nicolas Cage was at one time linked with the role - might, script allowing,have brought out more of the rough edges that distinguish the comic book Constantine.

In the supporting cast,Rossdale (best known as lead singer of rock band Bush) plays a suave satanicemissary, Hounsou (In America) is the amoral owner of a half-breeds'nightclub and LaBeouf (Holes) is Constantine's slightly comicalapprentice. The juiciest turns come from Swinton (The Deep End), whoplays the angel Gabriel as an androgynous schemer, and Stormare (Bad Boys II),who turns the Devil into a sneering lounge lizard in a gleaming white discosuit.

Behind the scenes,production designer Naomi Shohan (Training Day) finds some atmosphericlocations and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It)gives the film an evocative look influenced by the visual composition ofgraphic novels.

Prod cos: Donners' Company, Batfilm Productions, Weed RoadPictures, 3 Arts Entertainment
US dist:
Warner Bros
Int'l dists:
Warner Bros/VillageRoadshow Pictures (select intl territories)
Exec prods: Gilbert Adler, Michael Aguilar
Lauren Shuler Donner,Benjamin Melniker, Michael E Uslan, Erwin Stoff, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, AkivaGoldsman
Kevin Brodbin, FrankCappello, based on characters from the DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer graphicnovels
Philippe Rousselot
Prod des:
Naomi Shohan
Wayne Wahrman
Brian Tyler, Klaus Badelt
Main cast:
Keanu Reeves, RachelWeisz, Shia LaBeouf, Tilda Swinton, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Djimon Hounsou, GavinRossdale, Peter Stormare