I'm gonna git you, suckhead

Wesley Snipes stars as the slick vampire-killer in 'Blade,' based on the first black Marvel Comics superhero.

Published August 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

There's no way to justify enjoying a movie like "Blade." Midway through the opening scene -- set in a vampire nightclub hidden in the back of a meat-packing plant, where blood pours down from the sprinkler system on the thirsty partying undead -- you've abandoned any hope for anything like restraint or sensitivity or feeling. The sight of the blood-drenched vampires baring their fangs, the flashing lights and the pounding techno music on the soundtrack have knocked all that out of your head. The director, Stephen Norrington, appears to have no interest in the nuts and bolts -- let alone the nuances -- of telling a story or directing actors. He deals with the conflicts and dilemmas of the good guys and the master plan of the evil vampires as if he were paying his bills and watching television at the same time. If Norrington can't fall back on visual gloss and the idiot rush of sheer visceral action, he blips out. I wouldn't trust him to put together a scene conveying a simple human emotion if my life depended on it. Sometimes, though, this sort of numbskull flash gets past your defenses. For most of "Blade," I had an unconscionably good time.

The character Blade, one of the first African-American comic book superheroes, was created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan and made his initial appearance in Marvel Comics in 1973. In the decade before, Marvel had made a name for itself by introducing superheroes burdened with human problems. As private demons go, Blade's is a bitch. Born to a mother who had been bitten by a vampire when pregnant, Blade comes out half and half. He can withstand all the things that usually reduce bloodsuckers to dust -- sunlight, garlic -- but he has the superhuman strength of the undead. Unfortunately, he also shares their thirst for blood.

There's nothing of the do-gooder superhero to Blade (Wesley Snipes). With his ninja sword and Terminator-scaled arsenal, he's a stone-cold killing machine. Every "suckhead" (his term for vampires) he brings down is revenge for his mother's death. Meanwhile he's rapidly building up a resistance to the serum designed to keep the vampire side of his nature from taking him over. His ally and only friend is Whistler (Kris Kristofferson, with the long, graying hair and paunch of an aging biker, and looking like he's having a pretty good time), a weapons expert who rescued the teenage Blade from the streets and who has his own revenge agenda: Vampires killed his wife and family. Blade and Whistler are able to stave off encroaching vampirism in Karen (N'Bushe Wright), a hematologist who's been bitten. She joins their team because she's got nowhere else to go. The vampires are so powerful and have so thoroughly infiltrated the human race even the police exist to do their bidding. (That gives "Blade" an extra-disreputable action-movie charge: Blade can mow down cops with impunity. When police bullets bounce off of his bullet-proof leather tunic he turns on the cops and demands, "Motherfucker, are you out of your damn mind?!" They flee.)

You could read this horror-fantasy as a parable about the ambivalence of assimilation: The power structure in "Blade" is literally made up of bloodsuckers and the black hero's choice is to fight them, against the odds, or to betray his nature by joining them. But neither Norrington nor screenwriter David S. Goyer have any interest in exploring that. Blade's dilemma has none of the tragic resonance Joss Whedon has given his heroine in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The beauty of that show lies in the way Whedon translates the adolescent feeling that the world is on your shoulders and nobody understands you into a comic Gothic horror and heartbreaking romance. Norrington doesn't seem to care much what happens to Blade as long as he's around to kick vampire booty. The fight scenes -- particularly Blade's first appearance -- are undeniably exciting. Bodies and bullets and swords fly through the air so fast you often don't register what you've seen until a few seconds after you've seen it.

You should probably steer clear of "Blade" if emotionless violence upsets you. There's no lyricism to the violence; there's not even any real horror. Though it skirts the edge of unpleasantness and sometimes (as when a child is put in danger) crosses it, some of the grisliness is pretty funny. The vampires headed by Blade's arch enemy Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) are like bored rich club kids. After Frost feeds, he can't resist French kissing his girlfriend so blood winds up smeared all over their fashion mag pusses and their fashion-mag designer duds. The liveliest of Frost's crew is Quinn (Donal Logue), whom Blade whittles down limb by limb (one of the vampires can't resist trying to feed on his bleeding stumps).

Norrington and Goyer don't really explain the power struggle in the vampire world between the governing body of full-blooded vampires (headed by that undead icon of Eurotrash cinema, Udo Kier, whose credits include Paul Morrisey's "Blood for Dracula") and the ones, like Frost, who've been turned. And because it's not clear how Frost's ultimate plan will make him more powerful (or what the vampires will do for fun if mankind is wiped out), there's no real suspense at the climax and "Blade" never builds to an emotional or narrative payoff.

"Blade" is about nothing more than the hard metallic sheen of Theo Van De Sande's images and the kinetic blast of Norrington's work in the action scenes. The actors are on their own to bring what presence they can. I loved the manic demented gleam in Traci Lords' eyes as she lures an eager young stud to that bloodsucker nightclub; she's funny and scary at the same time. But neither Dorff nor Snipes get to be actors here. Dorff is all smirk and stubble here, though his malevolent, vaguely bored arrogance is rather amusing. Snipes' usual responsiveness is sealed up in Blade's long black-leather coat and dark shades, but he's a magnetic camera subject.

"Blade" in no way resembles a good movie, but its combination of music-video bombast, goth-rock sensibility, high-tech industrial production design, cold-blooded glossy magazine visuals, high-fashion club culture, horror movies, blaxploitation movies, Hong Kong movies and comic-book nihilism make it diverting trash. A true exploitation director would have cut "Blade" down to 90 minutes to keep it zooming along. But current film technique and film technology allow even B-movies to have top-of-the-line production values, so they drag on longer than they should because we have to see where all the millions went. Ping-ponging between the highs of the action scenes and the doominess of the expository scenes, Norrington may have created a new genre: the manic-depressive exploitation picture.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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