Blade [1998]

There are worse things out tonight than vampires. Like me.
The Bat Cycle -

- the second cycle of Comic Book Superhero movies was, for a while, substantially more successful than the first. Batman, Batman Returns, and Batman Forever all set opening weekend box office records and became box office smashes. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a huge hit and got a series of its own. Dick Tracy pulled in a ton of cash, and probably would have had a sequel if Disney hadn't dropped a fortune on the marketing and wasn't hoping for Batman numbers both at the box office and in merchandising. Darkman and The Crow made enough money to get minor sequels. 

But it started to spiral as genre films began bombing left and right. Meteor Man, The Shadow, Blankman, Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, Barb Wire, The Phantom... it became clear that just having a superhero or basing it on a comic didn't guarantee success. Finally, in 1997, even Batman and Robin was not only a box office miss, it became an instant joke. Spawn and Steel flopping in its wake were less final nails in the coffin than the first clods of dirt. All the franchises had quickly fizzled; TMNT 3 sank,  while Darkman II was relegated to direct-to-video, as was the third Crow movie after City of Angels got Weinsteined. There was a sense that the genre was dead, probably for a long time. It seemed it would be much like disaster movies, which virtually disappeared after 1980 for nearly two decades, and even when they did return in the late '90s, they were more occasional larks than a renewed trend. If Batman and Superman couldn't keep successful series going, how could unknown ones hope to hit?

And yet, in the background, Marvel had been working to get their properties successfully on film. The failures of Howard the Duck, Captain America, and the never-released Fantastic Four all stung; Spider-Man was stuck in development hell. If they studios couldn't figure out how to do their characters justice, they'd do it themselves as much as possible. In 1993, they formed Marvel Films, underneath which, in 1996, they formed Marvel Studios. Marvel Studios was created to control pre-production of Marvel films by hiring the writers, directors, and stars, and partnering with the studios to produce these packages. The first was a hard-R action/horror hybrid starring a character virtually unknown outside of die-hard comics circles. Despite all these disadvantages, plus coming out after the disastrous 1997, Blade was a substantial hit, proving that a comic book character doesn't need to be well-known to succeed, nor does the film need standard superhero trappings.

Blade succeeded because it kicks ass.

The film signals right away how hardcore its violence will be - the New Line logos are blood red. It then throws us into a horrific glimpse of the birth of Blade - a uniquely half-human, half-vampire hybrid, played by Wesley Snipes. And then it plunges us into its world with a pulsing techno dance score and a striking time lapse of day turning to night. A beautiful woman leads a man to a nightclub rave hidden inside a meat locker. The party turns increasingly sexy, but quietly unnerving, as blood drips mysteriously from the ceiling.

And then the sprinklers start spraying blood over everyone.

I mentioned yesterday that Captain America '90 often used minor characters as the point of view for a scene. There, it was distracted more often than not. Blade uses it right; having a normal guy drawn into this vampire dance where it literally rains blood  lets us react right along with him. He freaks out, as well he should, as the blood-drenched psychos around him begin to torment him. He desperately crawls through puddles of plasma... until reaches two black boots, belonging to a black man wearing a black leather jacket over black armor

The vampires freeze, then back away from the "Daywalker", even though they outnumber him a hundred to one. Then, finally, they attack, and he unleashes his arsenal of weapons on them. Vamps are blasted across the room as they incinerate from his silver-loaded shotgun. Silver stakes, knives, a katana, and roundhouse kicks destroy the monsters around him. Wesley Snipes' martial arts prowess combines with superlative choreography and camerawork and inventive ideas to create an exhilarating sequence. Director Stephen Norrington has a music video director's talent for a nonstop array of striking shots in a hyperkinetic style, but he doesn't lose sight of the story or characters in all the razzle-dazzle. There's a proto-Matrix feel to the wild physics and visual freedom of the action scenes; as with that film, the action remains exhilarating two decades later.

But the most overwhelming sensation is simply Blade's cool. Snipes makes every gesture, pose, and grunt inhumanly badass. He adds wonderful touches throughout, like the fistpump at the end of this fight, once his enemies are ashes and his target is literally nailed to the wall. His first words in the film: "Quinn, I'm getting a little tired of chopping you up. Thought I might try fire for a change."

At last, when the cops show up, Blade disappears into the night.

If the film had nothing else going for it, that opening sequence alone would burn it in your brain. But it's got a gallery of set-pieces at that level, and Snipes somehow keeping Blade endlessly cool at every turn without it ever getting old. It's impossible to imagine anyone else pulling off this much calm, swaggering confidence without it ever feeling unearned. Snipes is up there with Christopher Reeve, Hugh Jackman, and Robert Downey Jr. for miraculously perfect superhero casting. He walks and talks as though with the sheer conviction that he is God's gift to humanity, which would be insufferable if he didn't have the presence, charisma, and athleticism to pull it off.

The world of Blade is an endless web of dangers. Vampires not only exist, they've integrated themselves into every aspect of life. As Blade points out, they own the cops; they have ways of getting around the whole daylight allergy thing, both with temporary sunblock and through their still-mortal followers. And at night, every room, every corner seems to have a bloodsucker looking for a victim. In this, the movie accomplishes what most superhero movies struggle to achieve: creating a world that needs the hero. Desperately. Norrington and cinematography Theo van de Sande capture this world in steely gray, with both dark and light skin tones and, of course, red still vivid around it.

A great hero needs a great adversary, and Stephen Dorff's Deacon Frost lives up to the challenge. The vampires very much have a noble / peasant relationship between the "pureborn" and those who are simply humans who were turned. Frost was turned, and has grand ambitions. He wants to bring vampires mainstream instead of hiding underground. To make this work, he wants to raise La Magra, the blood god... for which he needs Blade's unique blood. He's intelligent enough not to put all his eggs in one basket, using not one but a whole series of elements to lead Blade right where he wants him, all while dealing with the pureblood nobles in his own way. Dorff combines a chilling iciness with a laid-back charm to make the dangerously ambitious Frost an engaging and menacing bastard.  

The supporting cast is also strong. N'Bushe Wright as Dr. Karen Jensen plays a female lead who, refreshingly, isn't a love interest, but a audience surrogate who becomes a legit sidekick with her own life and story. She's smart and tenacious, and the climax features her rescuing Blade rather than the other way around. Making her a hematologist is a nice touch. Kris Kristofferson's gravelly voice and humor make Whistler a fun take on a straightforward mentor character. Donal Logue and Arly Jover are fun minions of Frost's, and Sanaa Lathan gets more to do as Blade's mother than you at first suspect.

Writer David S. Goyer has never really been one for complex characters or themes; he's more about archetypal characters and hard-boiled dialogue. A representative example of the film's dialogue:

KAREN: You guys just patch me up and send me on my way?
WHISTLER: Here, vampire mace, essence of garlic. You keep your eyes open. Be careful. One other thing - buy yourself a gun. If you start getting sensitive to daylight, find you're thirst regardless of how much you've had to drink, I suggest you use that gun on yourself. Better than the alternative.
*CUT TO: Blade standing around, looking cool.*

This relative lack of depth could easily sink the film if it wasn't pretty tight. An early cut of the film ran 140 minutes, and tested poorly. The final film is 120 minutes even, and while it perhaps could have shed another 10, it's well-structured and moves along efficiently. It deals out details about Blade slowly, leaving him mysterious throughout, and closes the distance between him and the audience using Karen as an effective audience surrogate. (How many other Hollywood films can you name that use a black woman as the audience surrogate character?) Goyer, Norrington, and the cast make those straightforward characters iconic. And, of course, Blade has a whole series of truly classic one-liners.

There is a subtext buried in the material that does shine through. Blade, as the epitome of cool, becomes the ultimate black male power fantasy, the apotheosis of the blacksploitation ideal. The entire world is against him, top to bottom, including those like the cops who should be on his side. The system is built against him, hellbent on sucking the life out of humanity; The Man wants to literally suck him dry just to be able to show off his power. He either tortures Blade's friends or turns them into one of them. But Blade fights it, struggles against it, and triumphs, all while looking and talking bad as hell. 


Director: Stephen Norrington
Producers: Peter Frankfurt, Wesley Snipes, Robert Engelman, Andrew J. Horne, Avi Arad
Writers: David S. Goyer
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, N'Bushe Wright, Donal Logue, Sanaa Lathan, Udo Kier, Arly Jover

MPAA Rating: R for so, so much blood. Also swearing.

Budget: $40 million

Box Office: $70 million domestically, $130 million worldwide