Film audiences aren't always out of sync with critics when it comes to distinguishing inspired cinematic offerings from the truly rotten. Take "Blade," for instance, an ambitious but hopelessly misguided adaptation of the Marvel comic-book series about a human with the powers of a vampire.
During a recent promotional screening of the high-tech gore fest, viewers laughed out loud at the decidedly wooden performances of the usually capable Wesley Snipes as the sleek and powerful title character, and the unreliable Kris Kristofferson as his aging-hippie mentor, Whistler.
Also provoking guffaws was alternative-film favorite Stephen Dorff's portrayal of their nemesis, an undead guy named Frost. He's part vampire scholar, part suave hedonist, and about as menacing as your average pasty- faced nightclub kid.
The bloody, insistently moronic "Blade," not quite so bad that it's good, offers plenty to laugh about. The dialogue, as lame a place to start as any, is so generic that it might have been lifted straight out of a Mafia movie or any other genre dealing with widespread conspiracy.
"They own the police," Whistler says, as ominously as he can, to Karen, a pretty doctor who was bitten by an extra-crispy vampire. "You have to understand. They're everywhere." Blade, a strong but silent type who favors '80s outfits of black leather and bullet-bouncing metal, sounds a similar warning: "They've got their claws in everything -- politics, finance, real estate. They already own half of downtown."
The Mafioso theme is accentuated by the inclusion of a council of pure-blooded (natural born) vampires in business suits, seated around a table in a dark room, plotting ways to ensure the survival of their people. They speak in Italian, natch, and resent the ascendancy of the "made" (bitten) night-walkers like Frost. "You may wake up one day and find your kind extinct," yells the young punk-rock vampire, who has a sneer to match his three-day beard and sideburns.
Blade, so the convoluted story goes, was born shortly after his mother was attacked by a vampire. His mission is to destroy those who made his existence a living hell. Trouble is, Frost is about to tap into an ancient ritual that would unleash the mother of all vampire spirits during a cataclysmic takeover of the human world. Meanwhile, Karen, a hematologist, is working on a blood serum that would help our hero conquer his vampirism.
In addition to sinking their incisors into the economy, these vampires seem to have cornered the market on the most grotesque special-effects delivered in the shortest amount of celluloid time. The opening sequence, the most tightly constructed in a film that rapidly falls apart, has a lust-driven young man following a sexy female vampire into a rave held adjacent to a butcher shop.
A meat-market packed with gyrating sex objects suddenly turns into a blood orgy, as overhead sprinklers douse the dancers with buckets of the red stuff. Fangs start popping left and right, and Blade arrives to shoot titanium plugs into the Undead, who sizzle and fry just before evaporating.
How many times are eyes gouged, heads chopped, limbs lopped off and teeth buried in blood-spurting jugular veins? We lost count after 15 minutes or so.
Director Stephen Norrington seems to enjoy topping the mayhem at every turn of the plot. Vampire heads swell up like potatoes before exploding; an enormous Yoda-like creature changes into putrid colors when exposed to an ultraviolet flashlight; Blade's blood is squeezed out of his body and into a bucket; and, in one particularly excessive scene, an older Nosferatu has his fangs yanked out before being scorched by the rising sun. That's not the half of it.
Buried somewhere deep inside "Blade" is a stylish thriller, a post-modern vampire tale with touches of paranoia, New Age spiritualism, eroticism and metaphors about race relations. Piles upon piles of eye-popping visual effects, buckets of blood, walking-dead performances and a limply assembled storyline, though, tend to entomb even the best horror-movie ideas.