Blade (1998)

The Shaft-style vampire hunter character Blade (already seen on the animated Spider-Man TV series) was created in 1972 by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan as an antagonist for Marvel Comics' version of the vampire king in Tomb of Dracula. This lively horror-action picture, which modestly began Marvel's rise to cinema prominence, prunes away references to Bram Stoker, though echoes of his characters (and character names) are embodied by Kris Kristofferson (elderly vampire hunter Abraham Whistler) and Udo Kier (arch-vampire Dragonetti). Blade (Wesley Snipes), aka Eric Brooks, is a half-human vigilante ('the Daywalker') born of a woman bitten by a vampire during pregnancy. Subsisting on an artificial blood substitute, Blade hunts down monsters who plague humanity and have established themselves among the power elite. Meanwhile, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), the pushy young club scene vampire who attacked Blade's mother, conspires against the elder statesmen of his kind, deciphering an ancient prophecy and sacrificing twelve pure-blood vampires (and Blade) so he can become 'La Magra', a super-powered Blood God. Blade gets involved with a hematologist (N'Bushe Wright) who has survived a vampire attack. She works on a cure for his condition which turns out to be an effective anti-vampire weapon, finally allowing him to sample her blood to gain the strength he needs to defeat Frost in single combat.

Dressed in black leather, with cool wraparound shades and an assortment of tricked-up anti-vampire weapons that range from garlic mace through a silver-plated samurai sword to a shotgun that fires silver stakes, Blade is a striking hero, and Snipes acquits himself well in action and posing scenes. But he comes across as a rather wooden central figure, consistently upstaged by Dorff's unshaven villain, who ventures out by day while coated in sun-block and runs a vampire club in which blood is sprayed onto the dancers through the sprinkler system, and Kristofferson's country and western guru, who shoulders the burden of delivering the exposition. Even Donal Logue's comparatively minor villain sidekick has more personality than the ostensible lead, playing a streak of biker-style funkiness that distinguishes Frost's streetgang-like faction (humans who have been turned into vampires, including Blade's mother) from Dragonetti's power-suited conclave of pure-bloods (a race apart who were born as vampires).

There's a lot of plot to get through between well-staged and Techno-scored John Woo-style fights (music by Mark Isham), which further strands the hero in the background. Sometimes, it is edited too fast to play well, with some characters (pouting vampirette Traci Lords) lost in the melée and story points hastened over too swiftly to register. Scripted by David S. Goyer and directed by Stephen Norrington with stylish efficiency rather than inspiration, this plays better as a superhero movie than a horror picture, with a rare grasp of the mix of narrative complexity, starkly two-dimensional characters and kinetic combat that distinguishes good books. It is part of a slight shift in its sub-genre, taking attention away from the vampire to the vampire slayer, as exemplified by Vampires and the TV spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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