REVIEW: Blade (1998)

In a nutshell: Blade (Wesley Snipes) is the Daywalker – a half human, half vampire who dedicates his life to waging war on all vampires, who hide in a secret society. When rogue vampire Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) decides the vampires should be ruling humanity and attempts to resurrect the vampire Blood God, Blade is the only hope of stopping him.

Review

Believe it or not, there was a time before the onslaught of successful Marvel movies.  However the late 1990s was a different era for the blockbuster. The comic book genre had stalled due to a bunch of flops like Judge Dredd (1995), Steel (1997) or  Spawn (1997). Even Batman, a key franchise throughout the decade, had devolved into the one thing it originally fought against, a gaudy camp parody with Batman & Robin (1997). Ironically,at a similar time Tim Burton was trying to get a Superman reboot (with Nicolas Cage) off the ground, and failing spectacularly.

Whilst DC Comics films had been very successful at the box office during the 80s and 90s, rival Marvel had struggled. The Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990) were low budget, straight to video efforts (in the US) and then there’s Howard the Duck (1986). The company itself was facing bankruptcy, and had sold off the film rights to key properties to studios including Sony (Spider-Man), Universal (Hulk) and Fox (X-Men, Deadpool, Daredevil & Fantastic Four). Whilst many crazy projects were in development over the years (James Cameron’s Spider-Man? Tom Cruise as Iron Man?!) it was actually an obscure Marvel character like Blade who would rescue the genre.

One of the key people responsible, is Wesley Snipes. Hard to believe these days with him serving prison time for tax evasion and churning out direct to dvd efforts to rival Van Damme or Seagal. However in the mid-nineties, like those rivals, Snipes was a big star. He had talent – he was funny, charismatic and a gifted athlete/martial artist. The thing he had over JCVD and Seagal, was he could actually act.

Not a drop of blood on him… Blade (Snipes) prepares to unleash a can of whup-ass.


During this time, Snipes was trying to produce and star in a Black Panther movie (what a Coulda Woulda Shoulda!). For various reasons, he struggled to get the project off the ground. When the producers of Blade approached him, he saw a great opportunity and a second chance at building himself a comic book franchise.

Another vital ingredient to the film’s success is having David Goyer on writing duties. Goyer would go on to write the acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy (with some help from the Nolan brothers). However on balance he’s also responsible for Blade Trinity (2004) and has had a lot of influence on the current DC film universe.

Goyer wisely chose to jettison most of Blade’s comic book origins (an aggressive vampire hunter immune to vampire bites) and make him a more conflicted hero. Here he is a recovering junkie, a man keeping his addiction at bay. Somebody who uses his gifts to destroy the race that gifted them to him. A hero treated as an outsider by those who he protects. Goyer’s main flaw in this film, is the black and white nature of it’s heroes and villains. Blade II (2002) has a more subtle approach with some vampires being portrayed as flawed, sympathetic, even tragic figures.

Comic book origin movies are always a tricky balance. They can sometimes feel like an introductory chapter rather than standing on their own feet (e.g. X-Men, Man of Steel, Hellboy). Goyer has a decent attempt at world building, whilst “pulling a Batman” and have our hero appear on screen fully formed. Blade’s back story is hinted at through flashbacks and dialogue. There’s a lot of expositional dialogue, but when it’s delivered with the grizzly authority of Kris Kristofferson, it’s acceptable.

Frost (Stephen Dorff) and his goons. Black leather and shades, soooo 90’s.


Another highlight is Stephen Dorff as chief villain Deacon Frost. Dorff was emerging talent in the 90s that sadly never hit the heights his talents deserved. Unlike you’re classical vampire villains, he’s a rogue who doesn’t give a damn about vampire traditions. He’s an ambitious businessman, who isn’t content with just being an immortal. If Udo Keir and his Euro-council represent classic vampire aspirations, Frost is the new American Dream. Goyer makes him a compelling villain and provides some decent face-offs between him and Blade – something he would perfect in The Dark Knight (2008)

N’Bushe Wright is less successful with the material as the damsel in distress. Maybe it’s a stylistic choice, but she feels like she’s sleep-walking (or should that be day-walking) through the film. To be fair, she has to be the audience’s eyes and ears as we’re both inducted into this world beneath a world.

With Wesley bringing the action, Goyer the story, it was up to a fairly unknown director to direct and bring some stylish visuals. Stephen Norrington had a background in special effects, including Aliens. His directorial debut, Death Machine (1994) was banned in some countries for being too violent and controversial, but apparently it had enough style to get him noticed.

Rewatching the film after several years, I forgot how stylishly shot Blade is. Norrington has a knack for stylish visuals, adding energy and brooding menace when required. Whether it’s the empty streets at dusk, the dream-like daytime or the ominous time-lapse transition from day to night. It’s a shame Norrington hasn’t done more, as he obviously has a flair for visuals. Sadly it appears his personality killed his career – his follow up film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2004) was a troubled production that made Sean Connery take early retirement – an unforgivable act!

In true 80s and 90s tradition, the martial arts on display are impressively choreographed and especially thrilling with some mid-90s techno soundtrack. With the black leather, kung fu, guns and techno, it’s hard to argue that Blade was paving the way for The Matrix (1999), released the following year.

Despite some ropey CGI in the third act and the pounding techno music, Blade holds up pretty well today. Whilst it may not be the best showcase of Snipes’ talents (he can be very funny and charming, Blade is neither) it’s a career defining role, with some strong support from both Dorff and Kristofferson. It’s a shame it’s been overshadowed in the following years by films like The Matrix, X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002) and even it’s own sequel (by none other than Guillermo Del Toro), but it deserves it’s place in the highest ranked comic book films.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda: LL Cool J, Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne were considered for the role of Blade before Snipes was attached.

Alternate Title: I’m Gonna Kick You Sucka!

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