After a summer filled with third-rate pulp, Blade arrives with a pedigree that suggests first-rate pulp: characters and situations lifted from Marvel Comics; a screenplay by David S. Goyer, who earlier this year gave us the transcendent pulp masterpiece Dark City; and the presence (as star and producer) of the terrific actor Wesley Snipes.
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 the Vampire Slayer 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 sap-filled maple, a mysterious figure clad in black leather appears.
It is Blade (Snipes), the scourge of nightwalkers everywhere. With a combination of kung fu, swordplay, and ballistics, Blade saves the human. But in the melee's aftermath at a hospital morgue, a vampire (Donal Logue) bites a young hematologist named Karen (N'bushe Wright) 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 silver- and garlic-coated ordnance.
Blade, we shortly discover, is able to fight the good fight like no one else because he himself is a unique vampire-human hybrid: He was delivered by cesarean section while his mother was dying from a vampire bite. He has the powers of the undead minus 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 one 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 over to the dark side. And his days may be numbered anyway because he's developing a tolerance for the substitute.
In order to leave open the opportunity for a sequel, 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 undead elders. If his interpretation proves correct, he may be able to usher in an era of vampire dominance, with himself as chief nabob.
The satiric potential of this Revolt of the Young Generation is only occasionally mined: There are mere hints of vampire overlords as capitalist bloodsuckers. Likewise, although Blade's source material was allegedly the first comic to feature an African-American superhero, the film is almost entirely colorblind. That would be just fine if it weren't for one weird scene -- which draws attention to itself as a result of 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 in which the film 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 an 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 performed 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.
Directed by Stephen Norrington. Written by David S. Goyer. Starring Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, N'bushe Wright, Kris Kristofferson, and Udo Kier.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.