Blade (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Vampires. Few creatures of legend speak to human terror on a more fundamental level. Ever since the silent days of movies, when F.W. Murnau chilled audiences with Nosferatu, a creepy, atmospheric adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, film-goers have been entranced by vampires on the big screen. The worldwide blockbuster success of two recent pictures, Interview with a Vampire and Bram Stoker's Dracula, indicates that the lure of the undead has not worn off. With Blade, director Stephen Norrington is wedding two popular subjects: vampires and superheroes. His hope, and that of New Line Cinema, the production company financing the movie, is that Blade takes a huge bite out of the late-summer box office.

Blade has been kicking around the comic book world for the better part of twenty-five years, since he first appeared to square off against the title character of Tomb of Dracula. While the most famous vampire of all time didn't make it past the August 1979 issue when the series ended, Blade lived to fight other battles against the legions of night stalkers haunting his universe. The effort to bring the Vampire Slayer to the big screen was spearheaded by the legendary Stan Lee, a mainstay at Marvel Comics for nearly sixty years. Lee believed that Blade possesses two characteristics that make him an attractive property: he's one of a select number of African-American superheroes and he has a "dark side" that will appeal to audiences familiar with recent motion picture interpretations of Batman, The Crow, and Spawn. For a production company like New Line Cinema, eager to start a movie franchise (their first attempt at establishing one was this spring's disappointing Lost in Space), Blade offers a potentially significant upside.

The film opens with a brief prologue in 1967 that explains Blade's origins. On the night his human mother gave birth to him, she was bitten by a vampire. Through some sort of genetic mutation, Blade (Wesley Snipes) came into the world as a hybrid, possessing the physical strength and appetites of the undead, but lacking several of their key weaknesses (garlic doesn't bother him and he can exist quite comfortably in direct sunlight). Since being rescued from the streets by his mentor and friend, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade has waged a war against vampires, showing no mercy and giving no quarter. To prevent himself from having to feast on human blood, he takes a serum, but his body is developing a tolerance to it. When Blade saves a pretty hematologist (N'bushe Wright) from a vampire, he sees the chance for a cure if she can analyze his blood. But, before he can dream of becoming completely human, he must deal with the new leader of the vampire nation, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), whose stated goal is nothing less than the complete domination of the world.

For about one hour, Blade is a source of fast-paced, action-packed entertainment, as we follow the dour superhero from one confrontation to the next. After a while, however, this approach starts to wear thin. By the time the film is well into its second hour, we begin to wonder whether there's ever going to be a variation on the carnage and mayhem. As it turns out, there isn't. The entire movie can be summed up in one sentence: Blade battles vampires. There is an attempt to turn this into an epic adventure by introducing the concept of a vampire god whose awakening will trigger an apocalypse, but this particular plot aspect is not well-realized, even though it forms the basis for the climactic struggle between Blade and Frost.

The performances in Blade are serviceable. Wesley Snipes does his best Terminator impression by hiding almost all of Blade's emotions beneath a macho facade. This approach works on a certain level – it make Blade a more dangerous and ambiguous figure, but it also prevents the audience from connecting with him. Kris Kristofferson, who plays Blade's grizzled sidekick, is far more interesting in this movie than in his other current outing, Dance with Me. Despite being over-the-top (as one might expect), Stephen Dorff fails to imbue Frost with the ferocity necessary to make him a memorable villain. And N'bushe Wright is simply boring. The supporting cast includes the internationally known Udo Kier as the vampire whose position Frost usurps, and ex-porn star Traci Lords as Frost's long-toothed mistress.

Visually, Blade is an unqualified triumph. This seems to be a common trait of films based on, inspired by, or influenced by comic books (consider, for example, the likes of Batman, The Crow, and Dark City). In fact, the atmosphere is so well-developed that it's easy to forget how derivative and repetitive the plot is, and to get lost in the dark ominousness of Blade's paranoid, vampire-filled world. Blade is fueled by a kinetic energy, and there are scenes, such as the opening dance club sequence, that function as exotic, erotic assaults on the senses. Ultimately, that all turns out to be a rich icing on a half-baked cake. Blade has the capacity to dazzle, but it also will leave many viewers dissatisfied.

Blade (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1998-08-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1