Blood sucker

This vampire killer, despite its pedigree, never comes to life

After a summer filled with third-rate pulp, Blade arrives with a pedigree that suggests first-rate pulp: characters and situations from Marvel Comics; a screenplay by David S. Goyer (who gave us this year's truly transcendent pulp masterpiece, Dark City); and the presence (as star and producer) of Wesley Snipes, a terrific actor who has made his taste for Hong Kong action films known on talk shows.

It's sad, then, to say that Blade is at best second-rate pulp hampered by excessive length, a thematically meandering screenplay, and a general lack of excitement.

The working title for the film was Blade the Vampire Killer, which may have been ditched for evoking Buffy just a little too much. After a slightly confusing and unnecessary prologue, things get off to a good start with a sexy vampire (Traci Lords) luring some poor mortal into a private club, where, unbeknownst to him, he is expected to provide the drinks for a roomful of thirsty bloodsuckers. Just when the undead are about to tap him like a sappy maple, a mysterious figure, clad in black leather, appears.

It is, of course, Blade (Snipes), the scourge of nightwalkers everywhere. With a combination of kung fu, swordplay, and ballistics, Blade saves the human. But, in the aftermath at the hospital morgue, Quinn (Donal Logue) bites Karen (N'Bushe Wright), a young hematologist, and escapes. Rather than kill Karen, whose bite may not be bad enough to "turn" her, Blade takes her along to his hideout, where a grizzled duffer named Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) manufactures his silver- and garlic-coated ordnance.

Blade, we shortly discover, is able to fight the good fight like no one else because he is a unique vampire-human blend: He was delivered by Caesarean section while his mother was dying from a vampire bite. He has the power of the undead but without most of the drawbacks: He can walk by day, and silver and garlic don't faze him. The only problem is his thirst for blood, which he has been slaking since adolescence with an artificial substitute, apparently not sanctioned by the FDA. There is an unclear implication that if he fails to get it and actually bites someone in search of his fix, he will permanently go to the dark side. And, of course, his days may be numbered since he's developing a tolerance for the substitute.

In order to leave open the opportunity for sequels, there can be no end to Blade's fight; at the same time, it's necessary for the movie to trump up some sense of urgency about the current events. Accordingly, a young half-vampire--"turned" rather than born to the condition--named Frost (Stephen Dorff) has decoded ancient prophecies that have been ignored by the head (Udo Kier) of the stodgy council of elders. If he has them right, he may be able to usher in a new era of vampire dominance, with himself as the grand nabob.

The satiric potential of this Revolt of the Youth Generation is only occasionally tapped: There are mere hints of vampire overlords as capitalist bloodsuckers. Likewise, though Blade's source material was allegedly a comic featuring an African-American superhero, the film is almost entirely color-blind.

That would be just fine if it weren't for one weird scene--which draws attention to itself for its sheer talkiness--in which Frost baits Blade for championing humans. It's a replay of the common debate between racial pride and even separatism on the one hand, and social assimilation and ethnic denial on the other. It's also disconnected from the rest of the movie.

That's not the only instance where the movie dabbles in an interesting theme and then drops it. There are also some Oedipal elements that would be creepy and kinky...if only they didn't pop up out of nowhere. Blade never seems to know quite what it's about.

Of course, being a summer action film, it could just be about fights, explosions, and special effects--though that would have been clearer without all the murky hints of Something More Significant underneath. And it's in the action scenes that director Stephen Norrington does his best work here.

The fights, in particular, show the undisguised influence of Hong Kong fantasy films. (Corey Yuen's wild Savior of the Soul, also about vigilantes fighting supernatural evil in a modern urban setting, seems to have been a particular inspiration, though its self-mockery has been abandoned.) Blade fends off and slaughters dozens of vampires at once with flying acrobatic leaps, warp-speed swordplay, and inhuman martial arts moves. It's a little extra bonus that Snipes, who has studied martial arts, appears to have done a lot of the moves himself.

While these hyped-up encounters provide some real excitement, the energy never gets a chance to build. The overall pacing is so slack--incredibly, Blade runs precisely two hours, waaaaay too long--and the ground rules of vampirism and the ancient prophecies so hard to keep straight that even the best moments never quite get the audience's blood flowing.

Blade.
Directed by Stephen Norrington. Written by David S. Goyer; based on the Marvel Comics characters created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan. Starring Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, N'Bushe Wright, Kris Kristofferson, and Udo Kier. Opens Friday.

 
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