Movie review, 'Blade II'

SportsFencingVampires (supernatural entitiess)EntertainmentDeathMoviesWesley Snipes

As issues stack up, comic-book characters tend to sag under the weight of their soap-operatic narratives. When Superman got older, the cosmic Boy Scout needed to be reinvented and stripped down for each era so that new readers didn't have to keep track of complex and conflicting story lines and an ever-changing cast of characters. Marvel Comics recently did the same with a Spider-Man reboot, making Peter Parker a teen again in "Ultimate Spider-Man."

"Blade II," starring Wesley Snipes as Marvel Comics' mercenary half-breed vampire, moves in exactly the opposite direction, alienating its potential audience - new viewers or fans of the original "Blade" - with its convoluted plot, vapid supplementary characters and overwrought computer graphics.

The first stake in "Blade II's" cinematic heart is the return of Kris Kristofferson as Whistler, Blade's partner and weapons guru who killed himself after being bitten by vampires in the first film. Kristofferson himself is fine as the crusty mentor, but too much time gets wasted on bringing him back into the fold and explaining his return. A cure for vampirism comes into play (the one discovered and discarded in "Blade") and then is tossed aside again, further complicating Blade's whole modus operandi. Why kill vampires when you can cure them? And, ultimately, yourself?

"It's fate," Blade says in the sequel, and we're meant agree with him if we want the action to continue. And indeed we do. The whiz-bang martial arts and exploding vampires in "Blade" were fresh visual eye candy consumed by a pre-"Matrix" public. A sequel under auteur fright-meister Guillermo Del Toro ("The Devil's Backbone," "Cronos") seemed like it might be promising.

Instead, Snipes continues to pose like a GQ cover model, blowing kisses to his hot rod (literally) and killing foes when the lighting is juuust right. This time, however, he teams up with his sworn enemies - the pervasive corporate culture of vampires - to bring down the Reapers, a new strain of crackhead bloodsuckers feeding on vampires and humans alike.

He gets a crew of special-ops vampires to lead - the Blood Pack (actors Rob Perlman, Leonor Varela and others), an elite unit originally trained to kill him. An arsenal of shiny, new anti-vamp toys are also laid at his feet. In other words: special effects get heavy play in "Blade II," especially computer graphics (CG). Digital graphics are most effective when they enhance the action, blending into the film's production design and narrative. As someone once said of cosmetics, "The trick is not to look like you're wearing makeup." And "Blade II" is the Tammy Faye Bakker of action movies.

Del Toro repeats the same mistake made in the comic-book movie "Spawn" by trying to pass off clumsy CG characters as fully articulate humans. Several sequences, including Blade's introductory tussle with love interest Nyssa (Varela), look like scenes out of high-end video games but resemble nothing committed to celluloid. Plus, characters get regal, laugh-inducing lines like "The true power of the vampire nation lies here" and "You have been our most feared enemy." Vampires are unnatural beings, but not this unnatural.

When Blade isn't a badly lit CG mannequin, Snipes brings his undead superhero to snarling life with as much realism as can be expected. Instead of more kung fu, however, he steals moves straight out of "WWF Smackdown!" - from the German suplex to the elbow drop. And Snipes doesn't stop there: He quotes "The Godfather" and walks in slow motion a la "Reservoir Dogs" under that razor-sharp widow's peak. Against the rest of his dramatically flimsy crew, Snipes' sunglasses-at-midnight strut conveys an almost lifelike sheen. Almost. He's more alive than the movie, which is dead on arrival.

1 1/2 stars
"Blade II"
Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by David Goyer; produced by Michael De Luca, Wesley Snipes and Peter Frankfurt; photographed by Gabriel Beristain; edited by Peter Amundson; production design by Carol Spier. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, March 22. Running time: 1:57. MPAA rating: R (strong sci-fi/horror violence, language.
Blade - Wesley Snipes
Whistler - Kris Kristofferson
Nyssa - Leonor Varela
Scud - Norman Reedus
Rienhardt - Ron Perlman Nomak - Luke Goss

Robert K. Elder is a Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.

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