Al does Blade

bladebox“I’m gonna be naughty! I’m gonna be a naughty vampire god!”

The Scoop: 1998 R. Directed by Steve Norrington and starring Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Dorff, and Donal Logue.

Tagline: The power of an immortal. The soul of a human. The heart of a hero.

Summary Capsule: Non-cheerleader vampire hunter poses dramatically while fighting non-sparkly, non-Sookie vampires. Also, everyone wears black and mopes, ’cause it’s the 90s.

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Al’s Rating: Seven out of ten. What? I’m not exactly the March of Dimes.

Al’s Review:  As we move through the middle of Marvel: Phase Two, there are a lot of questions about where comic book movies go from here and what kind of films the studio could really make off of third-stringers like Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy. People seem to forget, however, that it wasn’t Spider-Man or the X-Men who kicked off the modern comic-book-movie industry. It wasn’t a name that most people had heard of at all. It was a C-list back-up hero named Blade.

Blade (played by Wesley “always bet on black” Snipes) is also known as The Daywalker, a vampire-hunter who is himself part vampire. Blade’s mother was bitten while she was in labor, resulting in a child born with all the vampire gifts—strength, speed, heightened senses—but none of their weaknesses, except for his thirst for human blood.

He controls the Thirst with a synthetic blood serum, created by his mentor, Abraham Whistler (Kris “grittiest man alive” Kristofferson), who also fashioned Blade’s arsenal of vamp-dusting weapons. In tow are Karen Jenson (N’Bushe “I don’t know anything else you’ve ever done” Wright), a hematologist desperately trying to find a cure for vampirism before she becomes one herself, and Deacon Frost (Stephen “Goes Fishing” Dorff), a rogue vampire leader bent on raising an ancient blood god.

The four of them fall into fairly standard comic book movie roles and the story adds up to a fairly standard “chosen one/raising-a-blood-god” comic book movie plot. Blade is quiet nineties-cool; Whistler is the cranky, smart-alecky sage; Deacon is ambitious, shirtless evil. It’s all serviceable, and it may have been hot stuff in 1998, but fifteen years of superheroes have pretty much numbed us to anything as basic as what’s going on story-wise in Blade.

There’s a lot here that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) work. Blade is boring, in spite of his coolness. Karen is functional as a narrative device, and that’s about it. Deacon and Whistler are both entertaining, but don’t bring anything new to the table, either. All four of them are concrete: they’re sturdy and solid, and they lend shape the movie, but they’re just too bland to attract anyone’s attention for very long.

There’s a reason, however, that Blade signaled the start of the modern comic book movie instead of the last gasp of the Batman & Robin generation. It doesn’t impress with either plot or character, but it succeeds wildly in the little details, and the details often make all the difference.

First, it embraces it’s horror movie roots, but also doesn’t mind playing with them.  The viewer is kept off-guard as the camera teases us with slow reveals or weird sounds, but it then almost “pounces” on certain images. It isn’t that the movie is trying to be scary, but it commits to the horror aesthetic and does a good job making vampires feel like actual dangerous predators.

At the same time, it has a lot of fun with the idea of vampires in the modern world. Deacon Frost has a coffin, for example, but it looks more like a pressure-controlled sensory deprivation chamber than a musty box in a castle basement. These vampires live in penthouses with closed-circuit cameras and listen to trance music on headphones while they decode prophecies with computers. The movie gives a great sense of the history and “old ways” of the vampires, but frames everything with the trappings of today, or at the least the “today” of 1998.

It also does a skillful job selling the notion of the hidden world that vampires inhabit. The idea of an ancient monster embracing modern, high-tech society is clever, but it wasn’t anything that Buffy and Vampire: The Masquerade hadn’t already been doing for years. Blade makes it work by establishing a link between the movie’s vampire subculture and several subcultures that are real but probably unfamiliar to most people. The story takes us to underground raves, corporate boardrooms, and Japanese schoolgirl karaoke bars – all places that the audience will be able to identify but probably doesn’t have much actual experience with. In other words, these places exist and I’ve never been there. Who’s to say that they aren’t populated by vampires?

Lastly, Blade simply manages to have a whole lot of fun once you step away from the people who are taking this Very Very Seriously. Weaved around the boring, cookie-cutter main cast is a world full of dynamic, quirky supporting characters like Quinn, the enthusiastic, nihilist sidekick vamp; and Pearl, the massively fat record-keeping vampire who can’t tell a lie to save her life. The bit players really seem to be having a pretty great time; certainly more than anyone with their name on the poster. They allow Blade to breathe and expand into something actually enjoyable while Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff keep the main plot relatively grounded and moving forward at a solid pace.

Blade gets overlooked a lot today, and I can understand why. For all the charisma that Wesley Snipes injects into the role (and he is charismatic–probably moreso than he gets credit for), Blade simply doesn’t have the distinctiveness, flair, or name recognition of a Spider-Man, a Batman, or a Captain America. Until David Goyer shoved him into the spotlight, he was mostly known for being the black guy who occasionally hung out with Ghost Rider, if people knew him at all. Despite this, the filmmakers created a movie that not only turned heads at the time, but a movie that holds up surprisingly well today. The world it creates is interesting and real; the action is slickly managed with precision, confidence, and style; and the movie in general feels much shorter than its two hour runtime (always a plus). There have been bigger superhero movies than this and there have been better superhero movies than this, but Blade was doing it all way before it was cool, and I think it ought to get a lot of credit for being the little engine that iceskated uphill.

Wesley opted for the less-common "single combat" option when he faced off against the IRS.

Wesley opted for the less-common “single combat” option to settle his tax problem.

Intermission!

  • In the original script, Blade and Whistler kept a vampire baby in a jar and performed experiments on it. The studio found the idea too disturbing, however, and nixed it.
  • Jet Li was originally offered the part of Deacon Frost, but turned it down to appear in Lethal Weapon 4.
  • Stan Lee filmed a cameo for the film but it was deleted. If it stayed in the film, it would have been his very first cameo in a comic book adaptation.
  • Wesley Snipes became involved with the project after talks fell apart for a Black Panther movie (the hero, not the political group).
  • Blade’s car in a modified 1968 Dodge Charger.
  • Blade’s human name is Eric Brooks.
  • According to Whistler, vampirism is a virus and vampires are classified as the homines nocturnae, or “Night Humans.” They need to drink blood because the virus feeds on their body’s hemoglobin and they cannot create enough of their own to keep it satisfied.
  • According to the DVD commentary, Donal Logue had a minor injury and was brought to the emergency room directly from the set, where he had been made up to appear severely burned. The doctors saw the fake burns, immediately rushed him in, and began to treat him for the wrong thing.
  • The original climax of the film had Deacon Frost turning into a massive CGI blood god, however the filmmakers couldn’t get the effects to look right and it tested extremely poorly with audiences. The current “sword fight” ending was a last-minute reshoot.

Groovy Quotes

Blade: [to Karen] You better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it: the real world. And if you wanna survive it, you better learn to PULL THE TRIGGER!

Blade: Some motherf—ers are always trying to ice-skate uphill.

Deacon Frost: Maybe it’s time we forgot about discretion. We should be ruling the humans, not running around making back ally treaties with them. These people are our food, not our allies.

Quinn: I’m gonna be naughty! I’m gonna be a naughty vampire god!

Blade: You give Frost a message from me. You tell him it’s open season on all suckheads.

Dr. Karen Jenson: Oh, great. Now you’re robbing him. You gonna rob me, too?
Blade: How do you think that we fund this organization, huh? We’re not exactly the March of Dimes.

Whistler: Catch you f—ers at a bad time?
[opens fire]

Blade: There are worse things out tonight than vampires.
Dr. Karen Jenson: Like what?
Blade: Like me.

Dr. Karen Jenson: You’re one of them, aren’t you?
Blade: No, I’m something else.

Blade: [in Russian] Catch you at a bad time… comrade?

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks! There was a blood tornado in the original ending, but it never saw the light of day because test screenings were so negative. Maybe there was one in the sequels? I can’t remember offhand.

  2. I have seen this movie exactly once, back when it first came out. I remember it being pretty good, although that may have been because I was all freaked out because ooooh, it was supposed to be scary ’cause VAMPIRES, and I was such a wuss about that sort of thing back then – and then it wasn’t actually that scary, so some of my approval may simply have been due to relief. Still, I REMEMBER it as being good, so I really ought to see it again one of these days and see if it lives up to the memory.
    Also, are you sure Pearl was supposed to be a woman? I mean, I know it’s a woman’s name, but the impression I got at the time was that Pearl was a man with a creepy high-pitched voice – some sort of vampire eunuch, maybe.

  3. One thing I really loved about this movie was how Karen Jensen never was your classic damsel in distress. Blade tells her to leave town, she goes home and packs immediately. She’s ready with her vampire mace the second she thinks a suckhead might be stalking her. Blade asks if she can use a gun and she says, “No, but I’ll damn sure learn quick.” She defeats her uber-vampire ex-boyfriend, climbs her own ass out of the “dog kennel” Frost threw her down, and saves Blade so he can save the world. Very little hesitation, and lots of good, immediate action. Superhero movies, hell, movies in general need more excellent characters like Karen Jensen.

  4. OK, just watched the movie again, and I think it’s pretty much official that Pearl’s a man. To start off, Blade calls the character “biscuit boy” (or something that sounds like ‘biscuit boy’; something-boy, in any case), and in the special features, the filmmakers referred to Pearl as ‘him’, so, yeah. Not much room for contention there, I’d say.
    And while I agree that Blade is awfully… well, STOIC, I’m not sure I’d call him ‘boring’ exactly. I mean, the man is damaged goods – he’s had this incredibly traumatizing life so far and come out the other side as this vampire-killing badass; I think the grim-faced, walls-off-his-emotions approach was really the only way to go with the character as presented.
    As for the vampires, I have to say I was impressed with how well the movie’s treatment of them balanced out the alluring with the repulsive. On the one hand, they have all this power and live this lavish lifestyle and seem to have a lot of fun, so you can see why some people would WANT to become vampires, but on the other, they’re these twisted sadistic monsters who revel in murder and torture and are overall completely, irredeemably evil. (Also, the way their bloodlust is presented is disturbingly… well, TACTILE. It may just be because I don’t watch enough vampire movies, but the way they slurp that stuff down and get it all over themselves was just icky.)

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