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World War II produced horrors far beyond the grasp of Saving Private Ryan (or, for that matter, Schindler’s List), but it was World War I that broke old Europe’s spirit. As tanks, poison gas, and hopelessly old-fashioned strategists turned the conflict into a shambling slaughter, the young dandies, aristocrats, and poets who chivalrously marched to war were broken, both physically and emotionally.
Those who suffered the latter sort of injury”neurasthenics,” they were calledwere sent to places like Craiglockart, a wartime asylum near Edinburgh. This is where real-life Dr. William Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) met successful poet Siegfried Sassoon (Maurice’s James Wilby), and Sassoon met unpublished poet Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), whose verse became known only after he returned to the front and was killed. These encounters form the narrative of Pat Barker’s historical novel Regeneration, now adapted quite faithfully to the screen by director Gillies MacKinnon (The Playboys, Small Faces) and producer-screenwriter Allan Scott (who has written or co-written four Nicolas Roeg films).
Rivers was a Freudian analyst (rare in Britain at the time) who before the war had done work on the regeneration of nerves, which is just one of the title’s meanings. At Craiglockart, the doctor treats men displaying various manifestations of shell shock, including stammering, mutism, and amnesia. Decorated hero Sassoon has none of these symptoms. His affliction is political: Indignant at the course of the war, the poet has written a “soldier’s declaration” charging that “the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” Convinced that it’s the only way to deliver his friend from a firing squad, Robert Graves (Ever After’s Dougray Scott) manages to have Sassoon sent to a hospital rather than a court martial. That leaves Rivers with the task of persuading Sassoon to return to war”taking a sane man and making him crazy enough to go back,” as the doctor puts it.
The aristocratic Sassoon bonds with Owen across class lines, encouraging the younger man to write about the most intense subject available to him, his war experience. It wouldn’t be a British story without class conflict, howeverwhich explains the presence of Billy Prior (Trainspotting’s Jonny Lee Miller). Originally mute and tormented by nightmares, Prior is a working-class man who’s risen through the ranks to become an officer. Though just as bitter about the war as Sassoon, he’s not the political type. He wants only to return to his men, a goal unaffected by his romance with local “munitionette” Sarah (Tanya Allen).
Regeneration talks about war more than it shows it, but the film opens in a corpse-strewn field and includes several vivid flashbacks and a series of ominous flash-forwards. Its most horrifying sequence, however, takes place in a doctor’s office, where a man who’s definitely not a Freudian uses electroshock aversion therapy to cure mutism more quickly, if brutally, than the well-meaning Rivers. The latter would never use so callous a technique. He’s touchy on matters of patriotism, but so liberal that he doesn’t even care that Sassoon is gay. He just wants to guide his patients safely to the curewhich makes him the medical equivalent of Sassoon and Prior, both conscientious leaders of men on the battlefield.
In its contrast of bright natural light and dim interiors, Regeneration looks a bit like Saving Private Ryan, and Mychael Danna’s Celtic-tinged score is as elegiac as John Williams’ characteristically bombastic lament for Spielberg’s heroes. The resemblance doesn’t extend, however, to Ryan’s handheld combat photography and its attempts to simulate the sensory overload of battle. MacKinnon’s film is formal and literary, with much of its dialogue derived directly from Barker’s. (Curiously, Scott has put some of the novel’s speeches in different characters’ mouths.) A more cinematic approach to World War I’s devastation could have been taken, of course, but only at a cost to the literary history underlying this story. How could a film that opens with Sassoon’s anti-war statement and ends with one of Owen’s anti-war poems possibly acknowledge the inadequacy of words?
Much bloodier than Regeneration, Blade is derived from a more fanciful reading of human history. Technically, this high-design vampire flick is based on characters created in the ’70s by Marvel Comics writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan. Its roots, however, are in the work of such late-19th- and early-20th-century fabulists as H.P. Lovecraft, R.E. Howard, and, of course, Bram Stoker. Drawing on folk tales, Celtic literature, and new archaeological discoveries, such writers imagined a savage yet romantic world free from Victorian decorum and Christian morality.
Like such now-quaint weird tales, Blade is emphatically pagan: It features a temple of doom that combines Egyptian and Mayan motifs, imagines an underground vampire archives that crosses Silicon Valley sleekness with the funky hoards of the British Museum, and even playfully indulges the pretentious notion of techno clubs as sites of heathen ceremonies. Such ideas would probably seem silly if developed at any great length, but writer David S. Goyer’s treatment of them is glancing and elliptical (although the script is more coherent than the one Goyer wrote for Dark City). Many of the film’s most piquant connections are made not by the dialogue but by Kirk M. Petruccelli’s extraordinary production design.
Eminently Victorian in its respect for hierarchy, the movie envisions an elaborate vampire taxonomy: Obsessive vampire slayer Blade (Wesley Snipes) is a rare example of a “daywalker”; because he contracted vampirism while in the womb, he’s not vulnerable to light. Still, he craves human bloodan appetite controlled by the serum injected by his mentor, Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). Whistler is a classic vampire-tale type, the bitter human driven to exterminate the species that killed his loved ones, while the duo’s new ally, hematologist Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright), is another variation: Just bitten, she’s trying to beat her transformation into a vampire.
Arrayed against Blade and his cohorts are two other sorts of vampires: The traditional elite, headed by Dragonetti (Udo Kier), were born predators, while the members of the less esteemed caste were “turned” to vampirism by being bitten in life. Chief among the latter group is Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), an ambitious young fiend who plans to expand beyond his empire of dance clubs where the primal beat is complemented by blood spurting from the ceiling. He’s been decoding the lost language of the ancient Book of Erebus”the vampire Bible”and thinks he knows how to establish himself as the supreme bloodsucker. (Amusingly, this makes Frost both scholar and monster, the blood-drenched equivalent of a mild-mannered academic pagan revivalist.) But the vampire needs Blade’s blood to accomplish his ends.
British director Stephen Norrington began his career making music videos, but here he wisely takes cues from Hong Kong action movies. Like one of John Woo’s most stylized films, Blade is essentially a series of set pieces, each one played out in a striking location. Blade himself has little to say; he usually makes his point with an extensive arsenal of swords, guns, stakes, lights, and high-tech potions. The role allows Snipes to show off his martial-arts training, but the actor’s performance is almost canine: He barks, growls, and bares his teeth.
Defying the Marvel Comics custom, Blade is short on wisecracks. It does have moments of pictorial wit, however. The vampire elders meet in a sort of high-gothic boardroom, which makes Frost’s challenge to them play like a prelude to a corporate takeover. One of the vampires’ haunts is entered through a club where Japanese businessmen appreciatively gaze at two miniskirted Japanese nymphets dancing to Shonen Knife’s “Ah Singapore.” Fast-motion footage pays homage to the essential vampire film, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, while the frequent strobe effects turn the whole city (unidentified, but it’s L.A.) into a rave. By comparison to such cleverly visualized conceits, the movie’s inevitable references to racism and AIDS seem perfunctory.
The latter associations are made with words, which are not the film’s strength. Blade is mostly a visual experience, although Mark Isham’s score is as compelling as can be expected these days of any example of the overworked goth-techno-worldbeat hybrid. Effects fans will enjoy the many well-realized shots of vampires burning, exploding, or turning to dust, even if one crucial scene suggests Raiders of the Lost Ark a little too strongly. Don’t go looking for Indiana Jones, though: In this dark city, antiheroes are as heroic as it gets. CP