Written by: David S. Goyer
Directed by: Stephen Norrington
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, and Kris Kristofferson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"OK, Vampire Anatomy 101, crosses and holy water don't do dick so forget what you've seen in the movies."
Comic book movies were a lot of things in 1998: ridiculous, weird, almost universally reviled, but mostly pipe dreams you swapped with your friends at recess after reading the latest round of rumors in Wizard Magazine. They were also pretty much dead in the water following Batman and Robinís infamous debut the previous year, leaving the fate of this genre very much in question. What wasnít in question: comic book movies definitely were not cool. You were still a complete and utter nerd just for knowing the names of pretty much any comic book character that didnít have a movie or TV show. Youíd definitely get your ass stuffed in a locker if you even dared to carry around an actual comic book. Kids these days donít know the struggle, man, and they have one man to thank for it: motherfucking Blade.
Because make no mistake, thereís no way to watch the first fifteen minutes of Blade, when the title character (Wesley Snipes) sauntered into a vampire rave and started slaughtering the bloodsuckers, without instantly thinking heís one of the baddest motherfuckers youíve ever seen. From the moment he steps on-screen, everything about him rules: the leather coat, the sunglasses, the calm, collected demeanor, the kung-fu--especially the kung-fu. Few character introductions have ever been as indelible as this one: once youíve seen him lay waste to dozens of vampires, you know just about everything you need to know about Blade. Itís a remarkable example of showing instead of telling, of simply allowing pure cinema to reveal a character via four minutes of action-movie bliss as Blade hacks, shoots, kicks, and pummels a swarm of vampires. David Goyerís script doesnít lean on an overwrought origin story: all you need is Bladeís dramatic entrance, which sends the vampires scurrying just at the sight of this fabled Daywalker.
More comic book movies--hell, just movies in general--would do well to hit the ground running the way Blade does. Only some brief shots of his birth and some quick dialogue from human assistant Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) are necessary in relaying Bladeís background. Where so many superhero origin stories feel leaden and bogged down by backstory, this one is more worried about simply kicking ass. Audiences are practically dropped in medias res into Bladeís quest to root out Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorf, perfectly irritating and slimy), a shitkicking, upstart vampire whoís been stirring up trouble amongst the elite vampire council (headed by Udo Kier in a brilliant casting choice). For centuries, vampires have lurked in the shadows, covertly preying on humans, but Frost thinks itís time to eradicate all of humanity by summoning an ancient vampire god.
There are other subplots, most notably Bladeís alliance with Karen Jenson, a hematologist (NíBushe Wright) who might hold the key to suppressing the Daywalkerís bloodlust. Itís his most glaring, vampiric weakness, one that provides him with just enough inner turmoil that he canít just be a completely aloof badass. This, too, is well-balanced though: Blade resists the tortured, reluctant hero trope because he does want to be just a completely aloof badass--itís just that he must confront the bloodlust that threatens to turn him into the creatures he despises. Itís a cool hook that brings our hero down to earth by emphasizing his humanity: he doesnít want to be a bloodthirsty monster, but that potential lurks within. He canít just roundhouse kick or shoot these urges, and they eat at him on an existential level.
Snipes so completely and utterly inhabits the role of Blade that itís hard to believe anyone else was ever even considered. When we say people are born to play certain roles, this is exactly what we mean. By 1998, Snipes had spent nearly a decade cultivating a distinct action-star presence marked by a gruff, hypercompetant charisma: in all of his action movies, you feel like he isnít a guy to fuck with. So if youíre casting a badass motherfucker like Blade, it makes sense that youíd go straight to the badass motherfucker: a man whose legitimate martial arts background backs up the persona and brings an authenticity to the Bladeís physicality. Because of Bladeís laconic personality, most of Snipesís acting is in the self-assured manner he carries himself. Blade is a man of precision, his every move calculated for maximum efficiency. His striking introduction in the film is a master stroke of cinematic skill: when the camera dramatically pans up to reveal Snipesís ultra-stoic, collected demeanor, it reveals more than any trite montage or voiceover ever could. You know exactly who Blade is and what heís about before he ever utters a word.
The following action scene--and indeed all of the filmís action scenes--reinforce that suspicion that youíre watching one of the coolest dudes to ever walk the earth. Director Stephen Norrington knows the talent he has at his disposal and matches Snipesís martial arts prowess to incredible fight choreography, the likes of which have become increasingly rare in comic book movies. His camerawork is kinetic but not chaotic; itís not content to create the impression of action with quick cutting and wobbly lensing but wants viewers to fully indulge the mayhem on display. Blade is a legit martial arts movie--maybe not in the upper echelon of its Hong Kong forbearers but certainly a fine representative of American action movies. Its leather-clad, guns-and-kung-fu approach predated The Matrix by 7 months, making it a harbinger of this particular style of action movie in addition to launching a bold new era of comic book movies.
Blade especially excelled in the latter respect by being unafraid to embrace its source material. This was sort of the big sticking point of the 90s: just how could filmmakers bring such weird, wild tales to the big screen and keep them reasonably intact? The answer often involved half-assed measures and invoking camp to create an ironic distance (see: Judge Dredd, Tank Girl). But Blade was more in line with the likes of the Burton Batman movies or The Crow: a little grounded and quite serious, but also quick to embrace the mediumís potential for fun. It does so with the gusto of all the best comic book movies to boot, and its horror roots (plus New Lineís bold decision to go with an R-rating) result in a singular, genre-smashing experience.
Norrington mixes gore-soaked theatrics into action movie staples (vehicular mayhem, bone-cracking kung-fu, shootouts galore), delighting the audience with blood geysers, body melts (via a stunning murder-by-sunrise sequence), severed limbs, and fantastic creature work. Blade is a tremendous work of pulp fiction, one that swirls together various flavors of its genre forbearers (you can catch a hint of vintage Blaxploitation) with the sole purpose of entertaining your ass off. Comic book movies continue to resonate precisely because theyíre one of our purest forms of rousing entertainment, something Norrington clearly grasped and embraced with Blade, a movie thatís just full of moments that make you leap out of your chair. 22 years later, few scenes in any of these movies are as positively electric as Bladeís climactic face-off with Frost and his lackeys, which kicks-off with the Daywalker decapitating Quinn (Donal Logue) and reclaiming his sunglasses from severed head in one fell swoop. Talk about a moment specifically engineered to bring the fucking house down. Blade is so good that you can even shrug off the digital effects that have inevitably aged poorly. Those effects might not be timeless, but being utterly cool is.
Of course, Blade isnít all just cool posturing; Iím not sure the character would have endured if the movie was only concerned with being badass. Stuff like that doesnít tend to linger. Instead, there is something altogether soulful about Snipesís turn in those rare moments Blade lets his guard down, almost all of them involving Whistler or his mother. His vulnerability is striking precisely because it stands in stark contrast to the myth Blade has fashioned for himself; the movie works because it realizes thereís a man beneath that myth, one that sometimes feels like that lost, lonely 13-year-old kid Whistler practically adopted off the streets. Their surrogate father-son relationship would become more rich in the sequels, but Blade lays a solid foundation in this respect, providing a textured sense of history without needing to dwell on it. Rather, it allows Snipes and Kristofferson to establish the entire stakes of this universe through their performances, much in the same way Keanu Reeves has done for John Wick.
Like those movies, we can talk about how damn cool Blade is all day long; whatís more interesting is its commitment to looking beyond that and crafting a character that still resonates with audiences to this day. Mahershala Ali has huge boots to fill when he takes up the mantle, and, while I have no doubt heís up to the task, itís going to be interesting to see how this character works in a previously established universe. In 1998, Blade was a breath of fresh air that all but resuscitated the floundering comic book movie scene. Some might say Blade crawled so other superheroes could run, but we all know those motherfuckers have been ice-skating uphill in a vain attempt to be as cool as the Daywalker.
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