1998. Before The Matrix showed us that actors could become martial arts experts for the purposes of movies. Before Bourne introduced the world to PG-13 martial arts. Before Sin City, 300, and Watchmen reminded us that comic book tales could also be for adults. Hell, before the recent comic book superhero renaissance (Nolan’s Batman, Raimi’s Spiderman and Singer’s X-Men) even took place.
It may seem like hyperbole, but without the success of Blade, Avengers may never have happened. Blade was Marvel’s first big success. The early nineties’ Punisher and Captain America efforts had failed to even get Theatrical releases, and there appeared to be little room for Marvel’s more ‘colourful’ comic book superheroes on the Big Screen, and, with DC’s Batman & Robin further ruining their own flagship franchise, it looked like comic book superheroes might be put out to pasture. But Blade’s unexpected success pretty-much single-handedly led to Marvel greenlighting both X-Men and Spiderman movies. The rest is history. Well, with all that in mind, seems like about time we take a little retrospective look at the Blade trilogy.
“You’re nothing to me but another dead vampire.”
An almost luminous blood red titles sequence erupts onto the pitch black screen.
1967. A woman is being rushed through hospital; a pregnant woman, bleeding badly from her neck. A baby is born. The music broods as the titles continue.
Flashforward to the present and we find ourselves racing through the streets, as a hapless idiot is being driven to a party by a gorgeous redhead. He’s led through an abattoir, coerced through his nervous hesitation by a suggestive kiss. A big bouncer opens a bigger door. And the music starts. A stomping techno remix of New Order’s Confusion blasts out an infectious, incessant beat. It’s a rave.
The poor guy, baseball hat on backwards, thinks he’s in heaven. Sexy girls are dancing feverishly; the party is wild – there’s even some guy in the back wearing a cowboy hat and getting off with some chick whilst another goes down on him. Heaven.
But something’s dripping from the ceiling. It catches him on the hand. Wet. Red. Then on the cheek. He wipes it. Tastes it. Blood. Blood? The music is reaching a peak. The crowd start raising their hands to the ceiling. The guy looks up and the sprinklers go off. But it’s not water. It’s raining blood. This isn’t heaven. This is hell.
He turns to his date – the girl who brought him to this place – and she mockingly asks “what’s wrong baby?!” before smiling and revealing her teeth. Screaming for his life he suddenly finds himself surrounded by wild dancers bathed in blood... and bearing fangs. They snarl at him; they laugh at him; they toy with him.
Suddenly one of them hits him in the face and he goes down. He crawls through the bloody torrent, being kicked from all sides, until he makes it out of the crowd, arriving at somebody’s feet. Feet sheathed in thick steel-cap boots. The music fades out. He looks up. The man’s actually dressed all in leather: leather trousers; long leather jacket, and a buckled breast-plate that looks like something a policeman from the future might wear as body armour.
“Is that him? Jesus, that’s him. It’s Blade. It’s the daywalker.”
The bloody crowd slowly back off, still grinning, still snarling and bearing their teeth.
Blade? He just smiles back, showing a bit of his own. Then the first victim steps forward from the crowd, and the music immediately kicks back in – another techno track, Roger Sanchez this time, its title betrays what’s going to happen next: Wrek Tha Discotek.
Blade whips out his Benelli M3 Super 90 shotgun and starts blasting. His enemies? They turn to hot dust.
When his shotgun runs dry, he uses his fists, furious but skilful martial arts blows incapacitating his opponents before he whips out silver stakes and drives them back to hell. It’s not out of necessity though – Blade hasn’t run out of other weapons, he just clearly likes to show off his skills. When a couple of bouncers start blasting at him with MAC-10s, however, he swiftly trades bullets – only his are silver-lined; his own modified MAC-11 machine-pistol with an extended cast front shell tearing his opponents to shreds.
For some insane reason a group of half a dozen armed heavies decide to try and rush him. Again the music pauses for a moment, a brief lull in the middle of the track, before he whips out a sword and dispatches them in a few deadly strikes. They turn to dust too.
Only one vampire is left – the over-enthusiastic hillbilly who was having fun with those two girls earlier. He’s not having as much fun now. Blade pins him to the wall with a stake in each shoulder – taking a moment to do a power-fist in the air, as if celebrating the moment. You realise that he doesn’t just hunt vampires. He enjoys hunting them. He leaves with the vampire eating an incendiary grenade and the cops busting in through the door.
“Give my regards to Frost.”
Born from a mother who had been bitten but not yet turned, the half-human, half-vampire Blade is a ‘daywalker’: unaffected by sunlight, blessed with the super-strength of his foes, but cursed by a desperate lust for blood, for which he requires a stabilising serum to keep him in check. Mentored by a gunsmith named Abraham Whistler – who rescued him when he was a young bloodsucking kid with no place to go – Blade relentlessly prowls the streets looking for vampires to kill.
After the fracas at the club, Blade happens across a young female doctor – a haematologist – who believes that vampires are cursed by a blood disorder which is possibly reversible. In other words, she may be able to cure Blade. But there’s trouble brewing under the surface: the vampire council of elders are determined to avoid further antagonising Blade – they want to continue to tacitly co-exist with humans, lest any more overt actions ignite a full scale war. Deacon Frost and his young renegade vampire faction have other plans though: Frost doesn’t care about war, he’s has his own quest – he wants to transform himself into an invincible blood-god named La Magra. And all he needs is the blood of a daywalker to do it.
“You better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping. There’s another world beneath it – the real world – and if you wanna’ survive it you better learn to pull the trigger.”
Black leather outfits including long leather coats and topped off with sunglasses. The Real World: a reality which the majority of the world are unaware of, lying beneath the surface. The Chosen One. Extended martial arts combat sequences and balletic gunplay, all set to a stomping soundtrack which used music tracks for the action scenes. And bullet-time-esque dodging bullets in slo-mo. Remind you of anything?
Writer David S. Goyer – who has gone on to co-write all three of Nolan’s Batman features, as well as the latest superman outing, Man of Steel – must have been pretty disillusioned in 1999. By then not only had Blade found success, but his other co-written film, Alex Proyas’s Dark City, had also been released. But both would be vastly overshadowed by The Matrix.
Alas, it doesn’t much matter whether anybody regards The Matrix as being almost half-Blade, half-Dark City, in terms of story, design, costumes, characters, action, and direction. The Matrix became in an instant global phenomenon, a game-changer which practically obliterated the memory of everything that came before it, and set a pretty high benchmark for all that followed (including its vastly inferior sequels). However, whilst not as intelligent as The Matrix, Blade had already raised the bar pretty high in terms of HK-derived, hyper-stylised action.
Wesley Snipes is Blade.
Nobody knows if he’ll be released in time to shoot scenes for a third Expendables movie. Nobody knows if he’s capable of a comeback after his infamous imprisonment for tax evasion. But, even after spending the majority of the last decade of his filmmaking career in DTV hell (alongside the rest of the Expendables veterans – Sly, Lundgren, Van Damme – as well as, of course, Seagal), and despite having given impressive early career performances in the likes of King of New York, New Jack City and Jungle Fever, and despite even racking up a reasonable number of impressive action hits (including Demolition Man, opposite Stallone, and the Die-Hard-on-a-plane B-movie that was Passenger 57), Wesley Snipes will always be remembered for bringing Blade to life.
The director of the second Blade movie, Hellboy’s Guillermo Del Toro, would go so far as to state “Wesley knows Blade better than David Goyer, better than me, better than anyone else involved in the franchise”, and it shows too. Whilst it might not have called for a great deal of acting (even Snipes would admit as much), it required a dedication to the role – honing every movement, gesture, mannerism, and response to be exactly what you would expect from this death-dealing daywalker. Snipes was also the one who helped introduce the HK action elements and martial arts into the character’s portrayal, blending in aspects previously uncommon in action movies and choreographing the fight sequences himself. It was his idea to take Blade in that direction, and it was some of his best action work. Indeed you can see why Snipes was so frustrated when it came to the third movie, where his character felt diluted and the film suffered as a result. Blade is a force of nature, and Snipes simply embodies him.
“You think humans will ever accept a half-breed like you? They can’t. They’re afraid of you. And they should be. You’re an animal. You’re a f*ckin’ maniac. Look at ‘em. They’re cattle. Pieces of meat. What difference does it make how their world ends? Plague. War. Famine. Morality doesn’t even enter into it. We’re just a function of natural selection. The new race.”
Although the actresses (N’Bushe Wright’s hapless haematologist heroine – who gets a great non-sex, sex scene with Blade where he drinks her blood as she moans “don’t stop”; Alien vs. Predator’s Sanaa Lathan as Blade’s mother and L’Empire des Loups’ Arly Jover as the villain’s pixie-blonde lover) did not fare so well – partly through their lack of talent and partly due to underdeveloped characters – strong support would come from the actors.
Stephen Dorff (himself also recently mounting something of a comeback with the Buried-like thriller, Brake) is surprisingly effective as the engagingly rebellious antagonist Deacon Frost, in a role that might have gone to Jet Li had he not opted instead for Lethal Weapon 4 (Li’s version obviously wouldn’t have had quite so many great lines and speeches). And the legendary Kris Kristofferson (Heaven’s Gate, Payback) is a brilliant choice as Blade’s grizzly mentor, Whistler, bringing gravitas and experience to the piece. Yet this was still Snipes’s baby, and, with a bodycount approaching triple figures, he owned both the character and the film.
Will anybody else ever fill his shoes? Well, clearly a reboot is just waiting to happen, and it’s certainly not impossible to picture anybody else in the role – Kirk ‘Sticky Fingaz’ Jones did him justice in the surprisingly competent, but distinctly short-lived 2006 TV series that’s certainly worth checking out for fans of the character (as well as the excellent anime series). Unfortunately, with the rights now reverted back to Marvel, it’s possible we’ll never see another Blade incarnation quite like this, and that – given Blade often appeared in Spiderman comics – they may try to ‘lighten’ the character/stories for broader appeal. Sigh.
“Had a family once. Wife, two daughters. Then a drifter came callin’ one evening. Vampire. He toyed with ‘em first. Tried to make me decide which order they’d die in.”
The action heroes of the 80s had slowly died out in the early nineties. Van Damme, Seagal, and Snipes – who all attempted to take over the mantle from the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger –forgotten amidst advancing technology and, frankly, better quality actors taking on those action duties. With the death of these types of movies, also came the death of action movies designed for adult audiences. Gone were the days of Die Hard, Rambo, Universal Soldier and Total Recall. Studios obviously wanted their films to have the widest audiences possible – and there was a steadily graduation towards lower ratings. It helped that The Matrix proved that you could make competent action fighters out of the likes of Keanu Reeves and Larry Fishburne, but The Bourne Identity took this one step further: not only making a believable action hero out of the then-scrawny Matt Damon, but also reining in the movie within the PG-13 rating. So dawned the era of PG-13 actioners (and don’t even get me started on the era of PG-13 vampire flicks!).
Sure, we still get the occasional no-holds-barred actioner – and finally some adult graphic novels are getting the appropriate treatment (300, Sin City, Watchmen) – but Blade is one of the few classic superhero movies (i.e. rather than anti-superhero movies like Watchmen and Kick-Ass) which was most certainly designed for adult audiences.
“Some motherf**kers are always trying to ice-skate uphill.”
Perhaps only Alex ‘Dark City’ Proyas’s own adaptation of James O’Barr’s classic revenge poem, The Crow, was worthy of comparison, and that potential-for-a-great-franchise was brought to a before-its-time end with the tragic death of star Brandon Lee (read my review here for a more in-depth look at that underrated film). No, Blade was one of the last of its kind: a Marvel superhero who kicked, slashed, shot, burned, beat, tortured and blew up his opponents – vampires and humans alike. Blade took no prisoners.
Preview screens had audiences balking at the end result. Why? Well, it wasn’t supposed to end the way you see it in the final cut. Originally Deacon Frost’s transformation into the blood god La Magra is far more... extreme. La Magra was – perhaps as you would expect from a god that will transform the entire human race into vampires – more of a giant whirlwind of blood rather than just a superhuman Frost in his normal vampire form. The effects work done was dodgy as all hell, with a giant Stephen Dorff head popping out of the whirlwind to occasionally taunt Blade. It looked like something out of Ghostbusters II. Of course a new ending was shot, with a much more satisfying final sword fight where Dorff’s Frost – for the most part – retained his normal form. Sure, it’s not as impressive as the fight at the end of Blade II, but it’s better than just Blade vs. Blood Vortex. Who knows whether improved effects might have given us the best of both worlds (they also jettisoned the glimpse of Blade comic book antagonist Morbius from the original ending – the hooded figure Blade spots in the distance).
“There’s a war going on out there.”
To this day Blade remains a thoroughly entertaining 2-hour fantasy action-thriller, with a moody, dark ambience, but more than enough fun to be had in watching Snipes’s effortlessly cool, me-against-the-world antihero cut a literal swathe through the evil undead.
It’s remarkably stylish – the slo-mo, time-lapse shots, overcranking and undercranking, and fast-edits using handheld cameras which ‘shake’ when body blows strike. It’s also strikingly atmospheric – the score, when not pounding out techno tracks, would channel incessant heartbeat-like John Carpenter percussion, whilst some of the more mood-setting shots would be informed by the kind of dystopic vibe you would expect from Mad Max 2. And it all comes together to make this a beautifully hyper-stylised piece. Admittedly, some of the effects do show their age, but they are largely acceptable – without taking you out of the movie – and they are often compensated by having some satisfying practical work. Besides, the film rollercoasters along with frenetic, balletic, brutal action and unflinchingly bloody violence at every turn, hardly giving you time to pick holes or raise issues.
It was a comic book character brought to life the way he should have been. It was adult action which didn’t pander to tweet-happy tweenage sensibilities. Underrated and underacknowledged, it may not be a perfect movie, but it’s still perfect entertainment. An action classic.
“There are worse things out tonight than vampires.”