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'Constantine' review: DC Comics story, messed up

Matt Ryan as John Constantine in

Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." Photo Credit: NBC / Quantrell Colbert

THE SHOW "Constantine"

WHEN | WHERE Friday night at 10 on NBC/4

WHAT IT'S ABOUT John Constantine (Matt Ryan) is a demon hunter -- a reluctant one, thrust back into a war with the spawn of Satan when one of them tries to kill the daughter of a friend who has died. But he needs help, and gets it, in the form of an angel, Manny (Harold Perrineau) and his trusty cabdriver, Chas (Charles Halford). The series is based on the long-running DC Comics series "Hellblazer."

MY SAY There are all kinds of ways to mess up an adaptation of a hugely popular comic book series -- and the pilot of "Constantine" appears to have deftly found every one of them. Too much story . . . not enough backstory . . . incoherent . . . confusing plot . . . insufficient character revelations.

That's a start. Here's something else: What happened to John Constantine? Ryan has turned him into a glib, wisecracking Columbo . . . or for an even better comparison, a Buffy, or maybe "Supernatural's" Sam and Dean Winchester. Tortured by his fate one moment, tossing off a one-liner the next or kicking demon butt in the one after that, it's a jagged, rough-edged performance without enough context to give viewers much of an idea who this guy really is (or why they should care).

His Constantine doesn't smoke, either. That was a key part of his comic book/ movie persona: A melancholy, self-destructive loner addicted to "coffin nails," in part to hasten his own demise so he can punch his ticket to heaven.

Mostly what's missing here, however, is a simple explanation. What the heck is going on? Even the 2005 movie adaptation with Keanu Reeves spelled that out in considerable detail -- a truce between God and Satan has allowed demons and angels to roam the Earth, while John, who had committed suicide (then was brought back to life) was hoping to get into heaven by consigning multitudes of rule-breaking demons ("half-breeds") back to hell. It was a peculiar stew of certain elements of Catholic theology with some demonology thrown in. But along with the cigarettes, any religious subtext has been stripped from the pilot. NBC clearly doesn't want to offend anyone but may end up doing exactly that -- at least fans of "Hellblazer."

BOTTOM LINE Messy pilot that doesn't offer enough backstory, or reason to care all that much about Constantine.

GRADE C-

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