The edge is off “Blade,” which toplines Wesley Snipes as a Marvel Comics-derived vampire slayer. Though slick and diverting in some aspects, increasingly silly pic has trouble meshing disparate elements — horror, superhero fantasy, straight-up action — into a workable whole. It also problematically lurches between a sort of “Mortal Kombat” appeal and vague attempts at grown-up weirdness, never quite realizing either. Thrown into a marketplace already crowded with waning summer actioners, the New Line release is likely to experience a fast dropoff after hale but unspectacular opening numbers. Ancillary life may be brighter.
Prologue, set in 1967, shows a dying pregnant woman being rushed into the emergency room. We later discover she was vampire-bitten, but the umbilical cord is cut before the infant can be fully infected. Thus, the titular hero grows up carrying characteristics of both undead and mortals: He has extraordinary physical strength and a hunger for blood (which he suppresses via special serum), but his human conscience renders him an ace vampire hunter.
The post-credit setpiece is far and away the film’s best. A young man who can’t believe his luck is taken to a secret dance club by the sexy woman who’s picked him up. Patrons are a tad on the scary-surly side, though, and things look a lot worse once fire-safety sprinklers on the ceiling give everyone a literal “blood bath.” Fangs are soon bared. In the nick, the lad is saved by the sudden appearance of Blade — Snipes in a sort of black leather Robocop ensemble. Latter proceeds to variously shoot (silver ammo), stake and otherwise kill the enraged blood-suckers.
But when the cops arrive, they take aim at Blade, revealing that certain authorities have an agreement with the vampire colony so long as they stay “underground.” Protag flees, leaving behind a charred undead man. When this figure is delivered to the morgue, he provides an unpleasant surprise for hematologist Karen (N’Bushe Wright) and her ex-boyfriend co-worker (Tim Guinee).
Wounded Karen is taken by Blade to the warehouse lair he shares with grizzled mortal Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), his loyal partner in creature-killing. Essence-of-garlic injection repairs her for the time being, but she still may “turn” — i.e., go Dracula — if the infection wins out.
Those ghoul eatery-cum-discos are the brainchild of young Turk vampire Frost (Stephen Dorff). He and his coterie of punk/biker-style “suckheads” are much frowned upon by a corporate old guard led by Dragonetti (Udo Kier). Vampires have survived for centuries by keeping a low profile; Frost wants to rock the boat and instigate a full-fledged “vampire apocalypse.”
With the pasty-faced crowd still after her, Karen must stick around Blade and Whistler as they seek out and destroy undead strongholds. Blade and Frost soon recognize each other as primary adversaries.
Scenarist David S. Goyer (“Dark City”) and director Stephen Norrington (an f/x and mu-sicvid vet whose sole prior feature was the low-budget ’94 “Death Machine”) create a lineup of hyperbolic action sequences that encompass everything from kickboxy martial arts to often gory, supernatural effects. (Allowing for their fantastical nature, the digital images here are still none too convincing — they sometimes call to mind Ray Harryhausen’s old “Sinbad” monsters, albeit in a more freakish vein.)
The filmmakers don’t manage much genuine suspense, sustained atmosphere, cumulative excitement or a sense that the story is headed anywhere in particular. There’s some mumbo-jumbo about an ancient prophecy and the resurrection of a dreaded Blood God. But it all comes down to rather routine take-this-no-take-this combat betwixt Blade and Frost. Already-sloppy plot logic starts snapping the tether entirely in final 45 minutes or so.
Overall, story isn’t very satisfying, though it’s never quite dull. Production design is enhanced by a widescreen look that, with its sleek blue/black emphasis, resembles a less baroque variation of Batman’s Gotham City. Techno music lends film a certain edge, albeit one never again so fully realized as in that opening club seg.
“Blade” takes itself too seriously without providing any emotional thread to hang onto. Minimal comic relief falls flat. There’s a surprising dearth of sexploitation, yet Wright’s rather monotone turn doesn’t add much romantic frissons, either.
Cast as a standard, iron-jawed superhero (one whose powers and vulnerabilities might be better explained), Snipes gets to show off muscular athleticism; his considerable acting chops and charm, however, go untapped. Dorff sneers competently.
His vampire playmates (including Traci Lords) look kinky but aren’t given much of interest to do. Dialogue here often skirts the ridiculous, and Kristofferson shoulders more than his fair share.
Tech package is high-gloss. But this hoped-for franchise kickoff (drawn from Marvel Comics’ first black-hero serial, begun in 1973) seems unlikely to earn spinoffs, unless they’re direct-to-vid.