The young woman invitingly takes the hand of her male escort, leading him through the hidden corridors that are awash in the bleakness of fluorescent lights. He asks her for the destination, but she only responds with a tease-- it's a secret. Working their way through the viscera of the cold city, they pass through a desolate abbatoir, until they come to a set of doors. Through this gateway, they enter a dark and crowded chamber. Hundreds of bodies writhe to the pulsating drumbeats that resonate over the din of the gathered flock. The strobe lights blind the eyes of the newcomer, and his head feels intoxicated by the raw hypnotic rhythm. But all is not as it appears. As he makes his way through the crowded dance floor, he begins to feel detached from the trance-like state of his fellow partygoers, like a junkie on a bad trip. He looks up just in time to see the blood pour down from the ceiling. The flailing masses around him transform from zoned-out ravers to something much more sinister. He screams.
Sex, power, and immortality. From this opening sequence, "Blade" is no ordinary creature-feature. Based on the popular Marvel comic of the same name, this action-heavy piece combines traditional vampire mythos, eye-popping pyrotechnics, and some Hong Kong fantasy film influences. "Blade" is a visual tour-de-force, and is perhaps one of the best comic book adaptations since the original "Batman". And for what it fails to deliver in substance, it certainly makes up for it in style.
In the world of "Blade", vampires are a secret society that moves among humans, having infiltrated our society to its highest levels. They linger in the darkness, feeding off the occasional poor soul who happens to wander in their midst. Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff of "City of Industry") is a half-breed-- once human, but 'turned' after being bitten by a 'pureblooded' vampire. However, despite the impurity of his bloodline, Frost is ambitious nonetheless, seeking to bring himself and his fellow half-breed club-culture riff-raff to the seat of power. The means by which they will do this is by resurrecting La Magra, an ancient 'blood god' that the purebloods dismiss as a fairy tale.
However, there is an obstacle to Frost's plan-- a man known as Blade (Wesley Snipes, last seen in "U.S. Marshals"), a so-called 'Daywalker'. Blade is also a half-breed, created when his pregnant mother was bitten by a vampire. However, unlike Frost, Blade's biology seems to have the best of both worlds. He has the strength and regenerative powers of his vampire brethren, without any of their weaknesses-- the inability to withstand sunlight, allergy to garlic, and an anaphylactic reaction to silver. With the help of his friend Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson of "Fire Down Below"), the gun-toting, sword-wielding Blade wages war against the vampires, ruthlessly hunting them down and banishing them to eternal damnation. When the war spills into the corridors of an inner city hospital, Karen Jenson (N'Bushe Wright of "Dead Presidents"), a hematologist, is bitten by one of the undead. Though it is policy for Blade to put the bitten out of their misery, he hesitates, and rescues her instead, even though she may eventually transform and turn on him. With Jenson's help, Blade must put a stop to Frost's scheme and the coming apocalyptic bloodlust.
Visually, "Blade" is a treat. With luscious cinematography reminiscent of "The Replacement Killers" and "Great Expectations", director Stephen Norrington highlights the 'techno-gothic' production design with a Calvin Klein-inspired nihilistic vision. "Blade" also exhibits many profound Fant-Asia, also-known-as Hong Kong fantasy cinema, influences. Fantastic aerial battles. Fast and furious wu shu swordplay. Debris being gently blown about under the light of a full moon. The ancient conflicts of good vs. evil, the real world vs. the netherworld, and duty vs. honor. Director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert ("Darkman", "The Quick & the Dead", the "Evil Dead" trilogy) are some of the most outspoken fans of this genre, and you can see the Fant-Asia influences in both the films and television series that they have overseen, particularly "Xena: Warrior Princess". The over-the-top action sequences feature Snipes in prime acrobatic form, juggling his array of vampire-trashing weaponry with clip-burning aptitude and grace. The wild shoot-outs are loud, flashy, and out-of-control. If you are a fan of films such as "The Heroic Trio", "The Bride with White Hair", or anything by John Woo, "Blade" will satisfy.
Unfortunately, "Blade" fails to deliver on the narrative aspects. While the presentation of vampire society is intriguing, and plays on the erotic subtext of vampire mythos, the movie is rife with missed opportunities. For example, Snipes' character is only presented as an emotionless killing automaton whose only facial expression is a furrowed brow, which neglects the dramatic possibilities and dilemmas posed by his mixed heritage. Furthermore, "Blade" briefly associates Blade and Jenson's respective conditions with cancer, but this powerful allegorical reference is quickly dropped and forgotten. Vampirism is an excellent vehicle for exploration on modern day woes (such as AIDS, racism, and homophobia) and several films have successfully integrated the vampire mythos with societal themes-- "Kids" is an excellent example. Unfortunately, "Blade" keeps the metaphors light, and thus never rises above your average shoot-em-up.
No bones about it, "Blade" is an inspired piece of action-packed eye candy, which will appeal especially to Hong Kong action aficionados. It's just too bad the visceral thrills weren't balanced by an equally-inspiring narrative. Let's hope they get it right in the sequels.