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Blade to Snipes’ Heat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s after midnight and the vampires are dancing. This is when it starts. I know--I saw the movie. The music’s pounding. Strobe lights are flashing. Now hidden valves will burst open like aneurysms and spit blood from the ceiling.

Am I the last normal person here? Anyone with any sense has already gone. Now’s my chance to bolt, too, but no way I’m missing this--a dozen dancing vampires, bathed in blood.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 20, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 20, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 57 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong film--A profile of Wesley Snipes in Wednesday’s Calendar incorrectly stated that the actor appeared in the movie “Judge Dredd.” It should have said “Demolition Man.”

So far, though, nothing’s happening, and I think I see why. On the dance floor, bobbing and strutting, bathed in red lights, I see Wesley Snipes.

I’m saved.

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Only something’s wrong. My man’s decked out for show in a maroon suit, a maroon, open-collared shirt and silver-framed shades, with a silver ankh symbol dangling from his neck. He’s saving no one dressed like that. Where’s his sword, his fighting duds?

Just my luck. Snack time in hell, and it’s Blade’s night off.

“Blade,” the movie (which opens Friday), is Snipes’ bid at creating a franchise black action hero, a vampire Batman for the ‘hood, as it were.

Only this hero has no hillside manse, no stuffy butler, no cushy, secret playboy life--he is who and what he is, namely a pumped-up, half-human vampire with a thirst for blood and a heart for vengeance.

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Ever since Snipes burst into prominence in 1991 playing a flamboyant drug lord in “New Jack City,” this stage-trained actor has shown a predilection for action films. Confounding critics, he has alternated between serious dramatic roles and movies like “Judge Dredd” and “Passenger 57,” which showcased his martial arts skills and physical prowess but little else.

Even Snipes worried for a time that people might forget that he could act. “I’m not as concerned about [being typecast as an action hero] as I used to be,” he says earlier during an interview in the courtyard of his hotel.

Snipes not only stars in “Blade,” he’s one of its producers as well as the executive producer of its soundtrack, on which he even tries his hand at rapping.

There’s more than a whiff of audaciousness in the undertaking. The superhuman action hero trend is supposed to be flagging, growing old with its biggest American stars. Schwarzenegger, after all, has had heart surgery. And Stallone even grew a paunch for “Cop Land,” the better to show his acting chops. Few actors seem lined up to take their place. But Snipes, 35, is giving it a try.

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“There are only two cats who can do it,” he says, sitting beside a gurgling fountain, the sun reflecting off his dark glasses. “That’s me and Mel Gibson. And Kurt Russell can still do it. I think they have a few more years in them.”

In large part because of the action films, which do well on the lucrative international market, Snipes’ stardom now reaches far beyond U.S. shores. That makes them a good career move. But besides that, Snipes simply likes action movies. “If I’m gonna go to the movies, you know, just to kick back, relax and be entertained, most of the time I’d choose an action film.”

As an actor, though, he prefers drama. He aims for variety.

“I could do New Jack until I die,” he says, referring to his breakthrough role as a gangster in 1991’s “New Jack City.” “New Jack could be 65 in a wheelchair and still running things. But that’s not going to travel internationally, and it’ll put a limit on how long I have a career.”

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For his last film, “One Night Stand,” he won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival. “That’s a pretty big thing,” he said, boastful but low-key. “It’s not the People’s Choice Awards.”

He seemed aggrieved at his absence from Entertainment Weekly’s recent list of Hollywood’s 25 greatest actors, and offered his own short list.

“Myself and Johnny Depp, of the younger guys, the actors of my generation, have been the most versatile, I would say. There may be others that I’m forgetting, but right now I can just think of Johnny Depp and myself.”

Television sets positioned around the nightclub are showing scenes from “Blade.” Dressed in black leather, wielding a sword, Snipes is a high-flying dervish, a hard-hearted Zorro with fangs. If the film’s dialogue does not live up to the quality of its stunts and visuals, that’s OK--the sound is off.

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The dark, cavernous club is primarily a gay haunt, but tonight it’s where the vampires have come to party.

At least they look like vampires, or maybe they’re merely the type of Gothic music fans who like to dress up. There’s a large contingent of them, pale, spectral figures dressed in black.

Because Snipes doesn’t enjoy interviews, he is promoting “Blade” in this novel way, hosting a series of parties around the country. The San Francisco bash was the first of seven. He wanted to duplicate the feel and mix of the party scenes in the movie, he says.

This certainly is a mixed group. Mingling with the vampires are some sleekly dressed hipsters, a few yuppie partiers, a smattering of costumed gays, even a 300-pound transvestite who dances with a skinny cowboy in leather pants and black hat.

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“Vampires travel in packs,” a stranger chimes in my ear. She knows. She’s been around. But the way she looks, dressed in black and displaying visible body piercings--and the way he stands just a little too close--I’m not sure she isn’t one of them.

Before the start of the party, Snipes wore his Blade costume for a few media interviews, but he’s spent most of the evening playing reserved celebrity host--posing for pictures, chatting, mingling, trailing security people and hangers-on wherever he goes.

“Blade” is one of two upcoming movies about vampire slayers with big stars. “John Carpenter’s Vampires,” starring James Woods, opens Oct. 30. Both movies feature vengeful antiheroes who face near-invincible foes bent on world domination. Of the two, “Blade” takes itself more seriously, which may or may not be a plus.

The movie is adapted from a Marvel Comics book, but Snipes says he worked with the writers to invest the story with elements of classic tragedy--"like Lear, like Hamlet"--and to heighten the emotional drama, the better to hook an audience as well as to give himself a role meaty enough to sink his fangs into.

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Blade is assisted in his struggle to stop the vampires by a father figure-sidekick played by Kris Kristofferson and N’bushe Wright as a fortuitously placed hematologist and love interest who may or may not be turning into a vampire herself.

Their arch-nemesis is a power-hungry, bloodsucking party boy portrayed by Stephen Dorff, who is somewhere in the club tonight, mingling with the other vampires no doubt.

“Blade” is the second movie produced by Snipes’ company, Amen Ra, to hit theaters. The first was “The Big Hit,” starring Mark Wahlberg. The company also is developing an animated series for Nickelodeon about “two dogs from the ‘hood,” which, while featuring talking animals, will deal with real-world adult themes, he promises. A science-fiction movie also is in the works. And he has optioned Terry McMillan’s “Disappearing Acts.” He produced poet Maya Angelou’s directorial debut, “Down in the Delta,” which opens later this year.

“I want to not only do films that are good films,” he says, “but also at the same time to show the African American experience as an American experience and in such a way that people can relate.

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“We have to do stuff that reflects our culture so that people internationally can relate to us as human, so that they can see how our culture relates to the Russian experience of poverty and struggle or the Japanese experience of industry or the South African political experience.”

He recognized the importance of this, he said, during a visit to South Africa a couple of years ago. He was shaken, he said, when he met a man who knew about African Americans only through the movies.

“As we passed by a little Italian restaurant a South African brother came out and walked up to me and addressed me: ‘My nigga, Wes, what’s going on?’

“At first, I was deeply offended,” Snipes said. But he resolved from that experience to produce work that reflects the culture in all its diversity.

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Snipes now is crouched on the dance floor, off to one side, his arms around the shoulders of two women who crouch with him, as if kneeling around a fire. Are they praying? Taking a breather? Who can tell? It’s 2 a.m. and the crowd has thinned out considerably. Only a handful of people still are dancing.

Snipes had mentioned dance to me earlier in the day. “Dancing was always a part of my life, man,” he’d said. Only he didn’t mean the kind of dancing he has just finished doing. “I studied [Martha] Graham, [Merce] Cunningham, modern dance, African dance. My interest was to be a dancer more than an actor right up until college.”

Before “New Jack City,” he’d first gained attention as a dancer, in Michael Jackson’s Martin Scorsese-directed video of “Bad.” His interest in dance began at the same time as his interest in the martial arts, at the age of 11 or 12 when his mother first took him to the Harlem YMCA to study.

As Snipes continues to crouch, two women stride to the edge of the dance floor. They are done up in “Mad Max” style--thigh-high boots, black leather hot pants, orange spiky hair and what looks to be an ammunition belt for one, a shaved head, black tights and leather bra for the other.

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Earlier in the evening they had caused a sensation on the dance floor, their moves alternating between sensual clinches and fluid professional dancer gyrations, punctuated from time to time with bouts of rough shoving and mock karate kicks. They were fearsome. Now they seem hesitant to walk out onto the dance floor.

A security man points Snipes out to them, through the remaining wifts of machine-made fog, and the women confer for a moment before approaching the actor, who stops to speak with them. The women say their goodbyes.

Most of the vampires are gone, too. What few are left behind now seem incapable of causing much carnage. Snipes is near the bar now, and for the first time I see him holding a glass, taking a sip--just another patron. Then he, too, disappears toward the club’s entrance.

On the television monitors, which still are on, Blade keeps performing his impossible stunts, but nobody’s watching.

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Surely now it’s safe to venture outside into the night.


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