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Wesley Snipes doesn't suck in Blade, but everyone else does.

By Joe Leydon

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Wesley Snipes slices, dices, shoots and scores as the eponymous superhero in Blade, a fiendishly clever neo-noir adventure that combines the bold visual style of comic-book storytelling with the frenetically acrobatic mayhem of a Hong Kong action flick. Obviously intended as the first chapter in what the producers hope will be a long-running series, the movie introduces Blade as humanity's last best hope against legions of vampires who have wormed their way into the highest levels of society. It may look like a one-sided fight, but take my advice: Place your money on the guy in the cool shades and the black, bulletproof suit. Ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics, Blade is half-human, half-vampire and all business when it comes to battling bloodsuckers by any means necessary. Years ago, his pregnant mother was bitten by a vampire shortly before giving birth to him. The mix of human and vampire blood resulted in a hybrid offspring - or, to use vampire parlance, a "daywalker" - who has all of the powers, and none of the weaknesses, associated with the undead. Blade has devoted his life to ridding the world of creatures like the monster who claimed his mother. Trouble is, there's always the possibility that, sooner or later, he may develop a resistance to the serum that stifles his own sanguinary cravings.

That serum, along with many other helpful items, is provided by Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade's grizzled mentor. Whistler designs most of Blade's weapons, which tend to be a great deal more lethal than anything in Batman's utility belt. In addition to silver spikes and silver-tipped bullets, Blade has a booby-trapped samurai sword, hypodermics filled with liquid garlic, a knife-edged boomerang - and a billowy trench coat that looks just enough like a cape to underscore the superheroic cachet of its wearer.

Armed with this arsenal - and some formidable kung-fu prowess - Blade makes a terrific entrance when he invades an after-hours club for vampires, and decimates the partygoers before they can sink their fangs into a hapless human guest. Later, Blade follows a not-entirely-destroyed vampire to a nearby hospital, and arrives just in time to save a beautiful doctor from a fate worse than death.

Fortunately, Karen (N'Bushe Wright) isn't merely a general practitioner. Rather, she's a brilliant hematologist, and she's able to concoct a cure for herself after she's bitten - but, fortunately, not drained - by that not-entirely-destroyed vampire. Blade seriously doubts that she can work any similar medical miracles for him. But, then again, that may be a good thing, since our hero needs all the vampiric powers he has to face his most dangerous foe.

In the world according to Blade, there is a rigid class structure to the forces of darkness. For centuries, vampires have been ruled by an old guard of natural-born bloodsuckers led by the imperious Dragonetti (Udo Kier). These traditionalists want to maintain a relatively peaceful co-existence with humans, in order to avoid attracting attention to their nocturnal activities. ("Our livelihood," Dragonetti purrs, "depends on our ability to blend in.") But Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), a former human who was "turned" by a pure-blood vampire, wants to shake up the system.

Unfortunately, Frost manages to stage an unfriendly take-over of the undead community, enabling him to begin a ceremonial summoning of a vampire god. Even more unfortunately, Frost needs a secret ingredient to enhance his recipe for disaster - the blood of a daywalker such as Blade.

Under the hyperkinetic direction of Stephen Norrington, yet another music-video veteran, Blade is vigorously paced and audaciously exciting guilty pleasure. The screenplay by David S. Goyer has some touches of deliciously nasty wit, particularly when Frost berates Blade - the first major African-American superhero to hit the big screen - as a half-breed "Uncle Tom." Not to be outdone in the insult department, Blade announces: "It's open season on all suck-heads!"

The final section of the movie is more chaotic than it should be, suggesting that Norrington and Goyer were making up their revisionist vampire lore as they went along. At its frequent best, however, Blade offers a bloody good time for anyone who enjoys B-movie melodrama dressed up with grade-A production values.

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