'Blade' Can't Cut Through Summer Doldrums

Blame it on the approaching millennium, or on Hollywood's desperation to please moviegoers starved for excitement in the late-summer doldrums. Whatever the reason, the new thriller "Blade" begins with such a burst of apocalyptic violence that you'd think the sequels to "Armageddon" and "Godzilla" had already arrived, wrapped in a single package to double the box-office body count.

Things quiet down after the first 10 minutes or so, but with characters like these, tranquillity never lasts for more than a few seconds at a time. Blade, our hero, is a sort-of vampire who stifles his evil impulses with an exotic serum so he can devote his life to exterminating full-fledged vampires. Frost, a former human who's become one of the latter, has devoted his life to studying vampire lore so he can summon up a demonic god who'll wipe out humanity. Dragonetti, an undead aristocrat, heads a vampire board of directors trying to uphold tradition against troublemakers like Frost.

Like many pop-culture artifacts in these postmodern times, "Blade" has a knowing sense of irony about the genre it belongs to. By their nature, as many observers have noted, vampire tales generally have a racist undercurrent, with the monsters standing in for whatever racial group the mainstream society considers strong, scary, and inferior. And in recent years, the vampire myth has been used as a ready-made metaphor for the AIDS crisis. "Blade" alludes to such notions in its imagery and makes them explicit with references to racism ("half-breed," "Uncle Tom") and illness ("sexually transmitted disease") in the dialogue.

This doesn't mean the movie is thoughtful about such matters, just that it's savvy enough to cast a knowing wink in the direction of contemporary anxieties. For most of its two-hour running time it simply flings a barrage of horrors at the audience, enhanced with the most imaginative science-fiction atmospherics this side of "Dark City," which incidentally was a far more original picture.

Wesley Snipes makes Blade as commanding as any comic-book hero around, although one can't help wondering why he's chosen to appear in so many throwaway entertainments since his early promise in some of Spike Lee's movies. Stephen Dorff, whose roles range from John Lennon's best friend in "Backbeat" to a transvestite in "I Shot Andy Warhol," gives Frost a queasy blend of menace, machismo, and charm.

Kris Kristofferson's stolid performance as Blade's sidekick is the dead opposite of his sensitive acting in "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," a superb film coming in autumn, but the role demonstrates his versatility, if little else. N'Bushe Wright is her usual irresistible self as a scientist who helps the good guys, and as the head vampire Udo Keir is perfectly cast, given his experience in Warhol's campy "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" knockoffs. Traci Lords and Arly Jover are also on hand.

"Blade" was directed by Stephen Norrington from David S. Goyer's screenplay, but the movers and shakers of the production were clearly designer Kirk M. Petruccelli, cinematographer Theo Van de Sande, editor Paul Rubell, makeup artist Greg Cannom, and music supervisor Dana Sano, who stitched together the technopopping score.

* Rated R; contains a great deal of extremely graphic violence as well as foul language and sexual innuendo.

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