If memory serves, the last Marvel Comics hero to headline a major motion picture was “Howard the Duck.” The dimensions of that 1986 fiasco were such that poor Howard never recovered his once respectable popularity. Whatever the fate of James Cameron’s on-again, off-again plans to bring Spider Man to the big screen, recent pop culture history suggests that Marvel’s stable of superheroes should go no further than the TV screen.
“Blade,” the feature film debut of Marvel’s half-human, half-vampire mercenary, gives faint hope that this precedent could be broken. The movie is nowhere near the disaster that “Howard” was. But it’s going to take stories more interesting than the one told here to turn “Blade” into the kind of franchise that producer-star Wesley Snipes hopes it’ll become.
Snipes himself is the movie’s biggest asset. He may snarl, hiss and twitch in ways that are often disorienting, but you can’t take your eyes off him, even when he’s standing still. Which isn’t often.
Blade, after all, is a very busy man with a time-consuming mission: to rid humanity of vampires--which, if you buy into this movie’s garish vision, are as plentiful as cockroaches. Their growing population has been helped along by a ruthless little bloodsucker named Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff, who comes on like a sticky, satanic version of a record company executive--or does that sound redundant?).
It isn’t enough for Frost and his fellow renegade vampires to stay several steps ahead of Blade and his mentor-sidekick Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). Frost wants to rule humanity, and he thinks he’s found the means to do so with a long-suppressed curse that, if revived, will literally create hell on Earth. To make it work, he needs to, once again literally, bleed Blade dry.
After all, the very thing that makes Blade a social outcast (his mix of vampire and human blood) also makes him a valuable resource for scummy yuppies like Frost to exploit. “You have all our strengths,” Frost tells Blade, “and none of our weaknesses.” Complicating both Frost’s malevolent plans and Blade’s work schedule is a beautiful doctor (N’Bushe Wright), who’s fighting infection by one of Frost’s goons.
The dark ooze that even tinges “Blade’s” daylight sequences is so omnipresent that, if this thing were a comic book, the black ink would come off on your fingertips. Director Stephen Norrington and his production team deserve credit for giving this story the jarring, angular design found in some of the more ambitious mainstream comic books.
The noir atmosphere doesn’t quite smother the dialogue’s cheesy smell, though David S. Goyer’s script is efficient enough in its pacing. All the actors, even Traci Lords as a vampire vixen, play their roles with as much conviction as the story’s pulp conventions allow without looking too ridiculous.
“Blade’s” real attraction, however, is the swordplay and hand-to-hand combat. The movie only takes off when Snipes and his antagonists leap, kick, slash and gouge one another with heavy-metal flamboyance.
Such techno-action may give “Blade” enough power for a sequel, but one is left wondering whether there’s any room for its central character to sustain interest beyond this flashy debut.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong, pervasive vampire violence and gore, language, and brief sexuality. Times guidelines: designer violence, rough language, relentless mistreatment of flesh and bone.
Wesley Snipes: Blade
Stephen Dorff: Deacon Frost
Kris Kristofferson: Whistler
N’Bushe Wright: Karen
Donal Logue: Quinn
An Amen Ra Films production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Stephen Norrington. Producers Peter Frankfurt, Wesley Snipes, Robert Engelman. Screenplay by David S. Goyer. Cinematographer Theo Van De Sande, A.S.C. Editor Paul Rubell, A.C.E. Costumes Sanja Milkovic Hays. Music Mark Isham. Production design Kirk M. Petruccelli. Art director Barry Chusid. Set decorator Greg Grande. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.