In which we discuss Wesley Snipes’ most widely celebrated turn as the vampire hunter Blade, in two excellent films. And then another, markedly less excellent one.
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Take a trip back in time with us to 1998, a strange and confusing time where films based on Marvel comics were not the all-consuming media behemoths they are today, but a force entirely absent from cinemas since 1986’s disastrous Howard the Duck, barring perhaps a few highly limited releases of some straight to video dreck like the Dolph Lundgren version of The Punisher. I’m sure the success of Batman films through the nineties started to pique interest in Marvel properties, but even that had cratered a year before with Batman & Robin, the nadir’s nadir of adaptations.
So, it was a brave move for New Line to put money into another comic adaptation, however I suppose with Blade not being the obvious choice from Marvel’s buffet of characters (I’d certainly never seen or heard of him outside of this film franchise, even now), and vampires becoming the pop culture monster of choice in the likes of Buffy and From Dusk Till Dawn it’s perhaps not as risky a bet as it first seems. Financially at least, it paid off, and so while the subsequent appearance of Fox’s X-Men and Spider-man deservedly gets credit for Marvel’s cinema revival (or well, vival, as they weren’t exactly a force before then), it’s _Blade_that’s the starting point of it all.
But enough of the scene setting. “What is an Blade, and what it do?”, I hear you ask. Well, fear not, my grammatically challenged chum, let your ol’ pals fill you in. Wesley Snipes, of course, dons the sunglasses and leather trenchcoat of the titular daywalking half human, half vampire vampire hunter. He has all of the strengths of a vampire – speed, strength, cool tattoos, nice teeth – with none of their weaknesses – sunlight, garlic, silver – apart from the thirst for blood. This is controlled by a serum his grizzled vampire hunting buddy, Kris Kristofferson’s Whistler produces, although we’re told he’s building up a resistance to it, a Chekov’s gun that the franchise never gets round to triggering.
Vampires live all around us, but keep themselves to the shadows, the ruling families keeping a truce of sorts with human powerbrokers, much to Blade’s distaste. However, upstart Deacon Frost, played, unfortunately for us, by Stephen Dorff, makes a move to bring unbalance to the force, decreeing that vampires should openly take their place at the top of the food chain. His plan for this is to fulfil a prophecy from the vampire bible, which I think was called the Book of Eli, which will see the unleashing of the Blood God on an unsuspecting word. For this, he’ll need the Daywalker’s blood, to which Blade is less than agreeable, hence all of this conflict and unpleasantness.
I don’t think a lot more detail of the plot is needed – it’s very much not the films strong suite – other than perhaps to mention N’Bushe Wrights’ haematologist Karen Jenson, saved from being turned early on, who goes on to give us an exposition sounding board, and yet, somehow, with even this minimal involvement in the plot, a bigger role than for most women in action cinema of the era. It’s a low bar.
Blade wasn’t warmly embraced by critics at the time, and I can see why. There’s a number of things that could use a rethink. While this is a top tier Stephen Dorff performance, that essentially means “serviceable”, so there’s room for improvement there. More critically, while we’re a few years and a number of millions of dollars away from The Matrix‘s redefinitions at this point, the standard for CG in film was significantly higher than Blade was able to muster. Some of it’s just conventionally dated, such as the subway train, but the effects work in the final battle is ropier than a rope shop storeroom. Given that it was a, I believe, a reshoot from a poorly received different CG-heavy set piece, I’m sure everyone did the best they could with the time and money available to them. Unfortunately, it’s not great, and a sour note to end on.
Particularly because the rest is spiffing. Plaudits of course go to Snipes, who expertly traverses very thin tightrope indeed of a cool, over the top, slightly camp bad ass, over which a giant abyss of extreme ridiculousness, where if you look closely you can just see Vin Diesel’s Riddick waving at you. Just as key to the piece is Kristofferson’s grizzled veteran, and the rapport the two slide into very early on sells their backstory unusually well for this sort of thing. Pleasingly, he gets as many cutting and funny lines as Snipes does, and it’s a joy to watch them bounce off each other.
One thing we didn’t really cover all that much in the Snipes episode is his action credentials, particularly the more martial arts side of things. Well, he is one crisp mother hubbard, particularly those high kicks that I think he does better than anyone in Western cinema. His physicality and poise sells some, let’s be honest, silly action, and makes it fun to watch. Kudos, then to director Stephen Norrington, and/or the fight choreographers for delivering a crucial plank of the film.
I suppose we should mention in passing, given what I’d been saying in the intro to this, that the year before this, ’97, New Line also released Spawn, another comic book adaptation which does have a certain similar grimdarkian aesthetic to it. It is, however, a joyless dumpster fire of a film, so let’s all just go back to pretending it didn’t exist for the good of our own health.
So, I’m gratified to find that time really hasn’t diminished my enjoyment of Blade, and it’s still top tier action entertainment, albeit one that’s bettered by the sequel.
After the perhaps unexpected success of Blade, Marvel saw that making movie adaptations of their properties could work (I wonder how that panned out?), and in an entirely shocking and unprecedented move ordered a sequel, Blade II, to be released in 2002.
Blade is in Prague, trying to locate Whistler who, it turns out, is not dead but being moved around from place to place by the vampires that took him in order to keep him from the Daywalker, and is absolutely not bait that will absolutely not be significant later. Shortly after rescuing Whistler a couple of vampires dressed as ninjas break into Blade’s base of operations and begin fighting as a prelude to presenting the offer of a truce, before having the temerity to complain that Blade’s people shot first.
These two vampires, Danny John-Jules’ Asad and Leonor Varela’s Nyssa, take Blade, Whistler and “Scud” (Norman Reedus) to meet the ancient vampire Damaskinos and his “Blood Pack”, a group of vampires trained to hunt Blade. Amongst these are Ron Perlman’s for some reason racist vampire, the guy from The Fast and the Furious who’s always angry but who isn’t Michelle Rodriguez, Donnie Yen and a ginger Scotsman. The reason the truce has been offered is that a new threat has emerged, deadly to human and vampire alike: Jared Has-to-make-do-with-Windows, played by 80s boy band member Luke and/or Matt Goss (I believe in John Oliver’s single Olsen twin theory, to wit that there is only one of them, just moving really fast between two positions, and have extended it to all “twins”).
This Nomak (who, depending on how you interpret the exposition, may only be three days old) is a new strain of vampire called a reaper, who feeds on vampires as well as humans, and who leaves his victims as zombies, because writer David S. Goyer got bored with vampires and had to add zombies too within one single film. Blade agrees to team up with the Blood Pack, who absolutely will not betray him, and you will, of course, be shocked and appalled when they absolutely do, and the scene is set for some snappy action scenes, fun barbs, nifty weapons and questionable physics, and a fate for Blade that’s not exactly the same as the first film but may as well be.
Again written by Goyer, Blade II is helmed by then little-known cult director Guillermo del Toro, who would use this film’s success as a springboard into making Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. As you might expect from the Mexican, the film is pretty stylish, though the source material and the fact that it’s a sequel limits the scope for putting too much of his personal stamp on it. That said, he oversaw some striking practical effects and animatronics for the reapers, which still hold up pretty well today, unlike the handful of CGI sequences that don’t hold up today, largely because they didn’t hold up at the time, looking more than a little like cartoons.
Musically it is of a piece with Blade and of its time, the soundtracks of Blade and Blade II joining the likes of The Matrix in defining a very specific period of the late 90s to early 2000s, but it does happen to be one of my favourite film soundtracks, so that’s fine by me. Peter Amundson’s editing is perhaps a little choppier and more “hyperkinetic” than Paul Rubell’s in Blade, but it’s fortunately not yet approaching the “Jeebus, would you please keep the damn thing still so I can see what’s happening?” frustration of the ADHD-afflicted The Bourne Supremacy and its ilk, and allows a fair bit of scope for Snipes to show off his moves.
Talking of Snipes, he’s still playing the gruff hero here, but he’s as watchable as ever and the goofy moments are turned way down while keeping, or perhaps even increasing, the snark, meaning that the character is more entertaining. Kris Kristofferson is a great foil again, Ron Perlman’s fun and the Goss twin does about as good a job as expected. On this most recent viewing the big disappointment was Thomas Kretschmann’s Damaskinos who doesn’t really do a lot, but to be fair was always going to be a let down after years of experiencing the clip of a wonderfully delighted Guillermo del Toro laughing heartily and self-deprecatingly at the screen test for his original intention of Damaskinos. The film, though, remains a very entertaining action movie. Ridiculously be-haired Michael Bolton vampire out of ten.
At which point the wheels fall off, not just for the franchise, but for Snipes’ career too. As such I’m not sure it’s worth spending all that much time on Blade: Trinity, but here we go.
Snipes returns, of course, alongside Kristofferson, but they’re set up by those naughty vampires, Blade killing a human familiar and being caught on camera, sparking an FBI manhunt for him. Also, weirdly they make a point about trying not to kill humans, despite that not being a problem in the other films. But consistency and logic were apparently not high on David Goyer’s priorities for Trinity.
The other prong in the vampires plan, here headed by Parker Posey’s Danica Talos with WWF wrestler and French-Canadian aristocrat Hunter Hearst Helmsley in tow, is to resurrect Dominic Purcell’s Dracula, or Drake as we’re calling him for… a very good reason, maybe? They manage to do this in short order, and Blade and co must stop them.
Ah, yes, the company, who earlier busted Blade out of FBI gaol. Whistler has been quietly setting up other cells of vampire hunters, and do we have a new team to get acquainted with, however, as they are mostly fridged before they’ve had more than three lines, let’s restrict ourselves to Whistler’s daughter Abigail, Jessica Biel, and ex-vampire Hannibal King, played by Ryan Reynolds.
And, well, so it goes, and I suppose the general set-up’s not all that much worse than the other films, but it’s just spread much thinner across way too many characters. And Dracula’s ability to shape-shift into other forms is seemingly only to confuse the audience, and not the characters in the film, which is a bit of a head scratcher. In a film that’s already struggling to find the time to give its villains much of an identity, it’s a complication it can ill afford.
The action is much less interesting, in no small part because a lot if it is being handled by Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds, who are trying their best but just aren’t as convincing as Snipes. However, Snipes was for whatever reason barely playing ball on set, only deigning to come on set for close ups, with his stand-in probably being on camera more than he is in the final cut. That, apparently, meant a lot of the action and trademark cutting barbs goes instead to Reynolds, who’s playing essentially the alpha test version of Deadpool. Watching it this time I recognised line that ought to have been amusing me, but it seems that when they come out of Reynolds face they’re stripped of humour. Maybe if he was in a mask of some nature it might help.
Now, it’s not a complete disaster, as when Snipes does show up he brings with him flashes of why I liked the other films. In the main, that reason turns out to be “has a lot of Wesley Snipes in it”, and the absence of this is pretty much the reason this outing can’t sustain itself. It turns out to be a flash Wesley Snipes vehicle, and if Snipes isn’t at the wheel, it drives over a cliff. It’s not the world’s worst film, but it’s so far below the last two in terms of fun and competence that I couldn’t even recommend this to completionists.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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