Dir:David S Goyer. US. 2004. 114mins.

There'sas much joke cracking as blood sucking in the third episode of New Line'ssolidly successful Blade franchise, a young-skewing horror outing withWesley Snipes again starring as the titular Marvel Comics vampire slayer.

Theraunchy humour, together with some boisterous action and a coven of newcharacters, gives the latest instalment a different feel from its twopredecessors and could serve to broaden the franchise's potential audience. Butthe new elements also leave this episode seeming laboured and unfocussed; andthat, in the long run, might make it hard for Blade: Trinity (with itsreported $60m budget) to do much more than equal its predecessors' financialperformance.

Snipes'box office pull isn't what it used to be, but additions to the cast -especially Jessica Biel, from TV's popular teen show 7th Heaven - willhelp draw a decent crowd when New Line gives the R rated film a Wednesdaylaunch in the US on Dec 8.

Youngmales and teens looking to escape from their Christmas-obsessed families shouldset the film on its way to matching the $81.6m domestic total achieved by Blade2 in 2002.

NewLine's independent distribution partners outside the US launch the film intheir territories this month and next (a couple go day and date with the USopening). The cast additions may not help as much overseas, however, anddistributors will be doing well if they can - as they did with the first twoinstalments - help the film achieve an international tally close to its UStake.

DavidGoyer, writer of the first two films (and co-writer of the upcoming BatmanBegins), directs and writes on number three. He makes a promising startwith an opening in which modern day vampires unearth the ancient monster thatgave rise to the Dracula legend. Taking human form as Drake (Australian actorPurcell), the creature is called on to purify the vampire race and implementthe vampire final solution.

Vampire-turned-vampire-slayerBlade, of course, is a threat to the plan, so the vampires try to frame himwith the FBI. Our hero teams up with the Nightstalkers, a team of sexy younghumans who have developed a biological weapon that could spell the ultimatetrouble for the vampires.

Theplot elements don't lead anywhere much and the tone isn't as alluring as themoods of the earlier films, especially Guillermo del Toro's nicely Gothicsecond instalment. With more daytime action - Drake, like Blade, can stand thesunlight - and more interaction with the human world, there's less dark mysteryto the story this time around.

Themartial arts-flavoured action has a pop video feel - enhanced by the use ofsplit screen effects, colour manipulation and music by the Wu-Tang Clan's TheRZA - and is doled out in large chunks that sometimes destroy the film'sdramatic flow.

Muchof the appeal, therefore, comes down to the new characters (Snipes is even morestrong and silent than he was in the earlier films).

Biel(seen on the big screen in last year's Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake)plays the daughter of Blade's faithful mentor Whistler (Kristofferson) and shedoes lend a certain ass-kicking soulfulness to the proceedings. HerNightstalker colleague Hannibal (Reynolds, from National Lampoon's VanWilder) is the film's joker, but his wise-cracking is very hit or miss.

Themost enjoyable new character is Danica, the bitchy leader of the contemporaryvampires, who delights in torturing Blade, Hannibal and the others just for thefun of it. Played with relish by indie film regular Posey, Danica slouchesthrough the story with an outrageous hairdo, a lip quiver that would have doneElvis proud and, according to her ex-lover Hannibal, fangs in her vagina. Talkabout love at first bite.

Prodcos: NewLine Cinema, Amen Ra Films, Imaginary Forces
US dist:
Int'l sales:
New Line
PeterFrankfurt, Wesley Snipes, David S Goyer, Lynn Harris
Exec prods:
Tony Emmerich, Stan Lee, Avi Arad
Prod des:
Chris Gorak
HowardE Smith, Conrad Smart
Cost des:
Laura Jean Shannon
RaminDjawadi, The RZA
Main cast:
Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Jessica Biel, Ryan Reynolds, ParkerPosey, Dominic Purcell