Blade II is to Blade what Aliens is to Alien.
I don’t think anybody was really expecting it at the time. The game-changing phenomenon that was The Matrix overshadowed the surprise sleeper success that Blade had had a year earlier; Snipes had been forgotten amidst a series of box office disasters; Marvel’s more colourful superhero output (Spiderman, X-Men) was gaining momentum and publicity; and PG-13 profitability was becoming the name of the game in action movies. Blade may have started the comic book movie renaissance, but its progeny looked likely to lead to its own downfall. Yet it had made enough money to justify another film, and so that’s exactly what we got. Well, not quite. We actually got one of the best sequels of all time. Continuing my retrospective look at the trilogy, and following on from my review of Blade here, we now take a look at its sequel.
Blade II. The most successful film in the trilogy, and regarded by many as being the best too.
“Forget what you think you know. Vampires exist. My name is Blade. I was born half-human, half-vampire. They call me The Daywalker. I have all their strengths, none of their weaknesses, except the thirst. 20 years ago, I met a man that changed that. Whistler. He taught me how to hold the thirst at bay. Taught me the rules. Gave me the weapons to hunt with: silver, garlic, sunlight. Two years ago, he was attacked. They took him, and turned him into the thing I hate the most. I should have finished him off. Now, I’m hunting him. I will find him. And nothing will stand in my way.”
Blade II picks up two years after the events in the first movie, following on from the epilogue which showed Blade popping up to wreak havoc in Russia – we now find that he has been scouring Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Bloc, looking for traces of his old friend and mentor, Whistler, who is being held and tortured by vampires. And who has been turned into one.
Honestly though, that’s not the crux of this story – it’s merely the prelude; an elaborately, but satisfyingly, orchestrated contrivance to crowbar back in the character of Whistler, so clearly dead from the first movie, and yet so plausibly brought back to life for the second. No, the crux of the story is hinted at in the prologue, and soon made clear. There are worse things out than vampires. And we’re not talking about just Blade here.
“Nomak. Born a vampire, but an anomaly like you. Unlike the rest of us, however, he feeds on not just humans, but vampires as well.”
Reluctantly teaming up with his sworn enemies – a group of highly trained vampires called the Bloodpack – Blade is recruited to find Nomak and obliterate both him and all of his kind, before he spreads his mutated vampire virus and transforms half the population, both vampires and humans alike, into near-unstoppable super-vampires who are immune to silver and garlic: Reapers.
Blade II does everything that a great sequel should do. It doesn’t just duplicate the original movie in a bigger-equals-better style, it builds upon the characters, reinforcing their background and developing their stories in a natural and logical progression. It is every bit as much of a Blade movie as the first film, and yet it’s so very different in terms of the story that it is trying to tell. It really is the Aliens to Blade’s Alien, painting a picture of a group of hard-nosed elite soldiers who are paired up with an experienced leader that none of them particularly like, to go up against superior opponents that they consistently underestimate, both in terms of numbers and sheer strength.
It’s a fantastic movie. Flawed in parts, and hampered by CG effects that have arguably aged even worse than those utilised in the first movie, it is still a great and worthy sequel which is certainly a contestant to equal its predecessor, and, for some, quite justifiably succeeds it.
Writer David S. Goyer – who penned all three Blade movies as well as the spin-off TV series that continues the story – upped his game for this sequel too, interweaving multiple story arcs, all of which were substantial enough to be used for their own individual movies, but, as one, came together to form a single great movie.
Originally the close of Blade saw him spot his comic book nemesis, Morbius, standing on a distant rooftop, the notion being that he would be the lead villain in the sequel. Of course, that ending was never used, but with Goyer still on-board, the idea of utilising Morbius was obviously still fresh in his mind when he came up with the new villain: Nomak, the reaper vampire. Similarly borne from genetic tinkering, Nomak would prove to be such a phenomenal antagonist for Blade that even Dracula could not top him in the third entry (although, admittedly, it was a pretty poor rendition of the first vampire).
“Is the enemy of my enemy my friend... or my enemy?”
Bringing on visually imaginative director Guillermo del Toro was a stroke of genius. Once a candidate to direct the first movie, the man famous for Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and Mimic would bring his unique horror-biased eye to the world of Blade for the character’s sophomore outing, and the results were superb.
Reportedly Goyer would seduce del Toro into directing the piece through one scene from his screenplay – the image of Blade holding the woman he loves, now infected with the reaper virus, as the sun rises to seal her fate. Ironically, however, del Toro’s vision of the movie would go in a different direction, concentrating instead on dual father-son narratives, and downplaying the romantic sub-plot to the point where even Snipes would comment to him “if we do another movie together, Blade better get some.” (Of course, del Toro would unfortunately not return to direct that entry, and Snipes would remain frustrated.)
In the Cronenbergian vein of body horror and gruesome effects, del Toro would take Blade to new levels of extremeness, the torture, disgusting autopsies and bloody, effects-driven side of the feature topping anything you’d expect from the Blade universe. Apparently Goyer envisioned the reaper creatures to be like something out of Carpenter’s The Thing, but del Toro was worried that the budgetary constraints would make this impossible to bring to life convincingly, and instead created the split-mouth reapers as we see them now. It was a smart decision, definitely pushing the franchise into outright horror territory, but not quite allowing it to become defined by it.
Del Toro actually had a personal fascination with vampires, and had been looking to bring in some of the ideas that he had about them into many of his previous movies (including, most notably, Cronos), but here he gets to finally quench that thirst, playing with the lore, honing the different vampire breeds, and even helping design a new uber-vampire race. He was like a kid in a candy store.
“Who do you think God really favours in the web? The spider, or the fly?”
After seeing the end result, audiences and critics alike would comment on how much more money del Toro had to play with – it was, after all, evident in the finished film: Blade II had a grander scale to it, more authentic settings, and bigger numbers throughout. The reaper battles alone looked epic (again, reminding us of Aliens), and the fight sequences and effects work was considerably more elaborate. Ironically, however, del Toro actually had about the same amount of money in the budget as Norrington had had for the first movie, a whole 4 years earlier. Obviously the studios were not being stupid about this product – whilst they could see how Blade had made them a lot of money, they weren’t about to sling $100 Million at a production that had no chance of being PG-13 rated; it just didn’t make financial sense. Personally, I’m glad that they had a much smaller budget and kept the full-on hard-R rating – especially as all involved in the first project had been concerned that, if it had been successful, a sequel would have been neutered for PG-13 sensibilities – but it’s a testament to del Toro’s visionary style – and sheer improvisational inventiveness – that he managed to make it look like a considerably bigger movie. It’s also something of a relief that the director didn’t find it a hard slog to pull it off: he actually regarded it as one of his best experiences working as a director.
Aside from his trademark body horror and autopsy gore, del Toro also brought a fantastic flair to some key moments strewn across the film. Picture Blade, running in slo-mo through the blue-light-splayed tunnels of the womb-like underground sewer system – a handgun in each hand – with dozens of reapers chasing him, crawling all over the tunnels on all four legs, and even across the ceiling, with their shadows looming, cast across and against the blue light. Shooting all around him, the reapers close in – there are dozens of them; hundreds of them. He makes it to his target: a UV bomb that will destroy them all. But the bomb trigger-plunger is stuck. It’s a classic Blade moment, del Toro definitely imbuing the film with a sense of overwhelming numbers, in spite of whatever budgetary restrictions he may have had.
“As my daddy said, right before he killed my mom, if you want anything done right, you’re gonna’ have to do it yourself.”
The martial arts in the fight sequences would also be arguably better depicted than first time around – indeed the scenes themselves were shot in a very different way. Whilst Norrington – Blade’s director – favoured handheld fast edits complete with an early version of shaky-cam (where the camera literally shook when hard body-blows were carried out), del Toro favoured a wider, straight-shot, almost balletic approach to the fights. Meticulously choreographed by Snipes once again (despite Donnie Yen featuring in the movie, he had precious little time to participate, and even less time to choreograph the fights), only this time under the detail-attentive eye of del Toro, we get some super martial arts stand-offs. It is undeniably impressive stuff – even when a couple of dodgy Spiderman-esque CG effects shots interrupt and threaten to take you out of the movie – and it is probably still the high point in Snipes’s action career.
Wesley Snipes, of course, is Blade, although this time, he has a much bigger – and better quality – supporting cast surrounding him. When del Toro was concerned that the one aspect of the movie which he didn’t have a handle on was the character of Blade, Snipes assured him that he had that covered. Still as effortlessly cool as he was first time around, Snipes has clearly settled into the role of the stoic daywalker, and is now comfortable with adding a few more subtle nuances to his character’s repertoire – from the slight smile that he affords himself when he successfully cures Whistler; to the assured combat sequences, even against the aforementioned heavy numbers; to the spreading concern and stress when faced with Nomak himself – his one truly deadly opponent.
“It’s strange... it hurts... it hurts no more...”
Who would have thought that Luke Goss – from the 80s Brit boy band Bros – would make for such a fantastic antagonist?! Although he still hasn’t really made it as a mainstream Hollywood star – largely relegated to doing just DTV features – he shows a surprising amount of commitment to even these productions (if you want proof, check out Death Race 2, the DTV gem that is a prequel to the already fun Statham-starring remake, Death Race). But it all started with Blade II, which was his high profile debut, and in which he acquitted himself surprisingly well.
Introduced in a fantastic way, which would mirror but reverse the opening scene in the first film, Goss’s Nomak is a classic tortured villain in the Frankenstein mould – torn by the fact that he was made the way he is against his wishes, yet terrifying in the violence and sheer horror that he is capable of turning his hands to. It’s the one out of the two dual father-son storylines which truly works – Nomak’s confrontation with his father, who created and then abandoned him, and in whose eyes he still desperately seeks recognition. Indeed Goss plays him so brilliantly that you find yourself occasionally rooting for him. Certainly when he stands up against his more overtly evil vampire predecessors you’re cheering as he cuts a bloody swathe through their ranks, but it’s touch and go as to who you want to win – out of him and Blade – with the latter only really having the edge because he’s not quite a monster and because, well, Snipes is Blade. Still, it’s a great performance from Goss, he makes for a perfectly tragic, tortured and relentlessly violent enemy – and convinces as a truly worthy opponent who matches, if not bests, Blade in almost every respect.
“They tortured me almost to death, and then let me heal in a vat of blood so they could go at it again.”
The other father-son storyline concerned Blade and his former mentor Whistler, played by returning actor Kris Kristofferson, who is, again, on great form. Unfortunately there feels to be far more to his sub-story which never made the final cut and, whilst the vague father-son sentiments are carried out across the movie and we do get two solid moments – Blade rescuing Whistler at the beginning, and Whistler returning the favour at the end – the ongoing tension over whether or not Whistler has really been cured, and whether or not he can be trusted, feels ineffective and abortive. It would have been nice to see him become a real potential threat to Blade, and then show that he was on his side all along, rather than just having him strut around in the shadows being enigmatic and, frankly, suspicious. Still, this is not Kristofferson’s fault, but actually del Toro’s. The director clearly had to make some tough calls when it came to the final cut, and stripping out some of Whistler’s story was a part of these decisions. For good or for bad, this is all we have left with Blade’s mentor.
Arguably the really antagonistic antagonists come in the form of the Bloodpack vampires themselves – with whom Blade forms a reluctant alliance which you’re just waiting to see dissolve. Del Toro’s Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman (Enemy at the Gates) is the standout member; the tough-nosed, shaven-headed Reinhardt, who simply can’t hide the absolute hatred he has for Blade. Perlman chews up the scenery, threatening to steal almost all of the scenes he’s in, but also giving Snipes some wonderfully humorous moments where a witty edge is added to Blade’s steely-cool veneer.
“Now you got an explosive device stuck to the back of your head...”
Amidst the rest of the Bloodpack we get the likes of Fast Five’s Matt Schulze, Danny John-Jules (from the Brit sci-fi comedy, Red Dwarf), Underworld: Evolution’s Tony Curran and, of course, Donnie Yen (Ip Man, SPL), although he’s utterly wasted in this – one of his few US roles – merely relegated to playing a mute swordsman who is quickly dispatched off-screen (though this was not the director del Toro’s fault, as Yen had previously committed to another movie and was only on-set for a short time).
Then there’s the love interest, another member of the Bloodpack, Nyssa, played by the little-known Chilean actress Leonor Varela. Not only has Blade not had a great love life (or any love life) as depicted in the movies, but the women in Blade’s world have generally been poorly realised characters brought to life inadequately by limited range actresses. Whilst this was wholly evident in the first movie, Varela does try her best in the role here and seems eminently better equipped, but also appears to be hampered by a director who doesn’t fully commit to the story arc of her character as was originally scripted.
“You don’t want to go there.”
“Because one of us is going to kill the other before this ends.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that. We don’t have to be enemies.”
Certainly you get the feeling that there is more to the relationship between Blade and Nyssa than we ever get to see on-screen (as much can be gleaned from deleted footage and unfilmed, but scripted scenes – discussed in greater detail later), but without those additional touches, the end result is somewhat ineffective. Again, del Toro had to make the call. But, without studying the film – and, to be honest, how many people do?! – you’re unlike to feel like anything is missing here; you’ll probably be too busy enjoying the action-packed, horror-drenched rollercoaster ride.
With a bigger cast, a bigger story, bigger fight scenes, and a more impressive scale to the film, it’s no surprise that they rounded things off with some big names attached to the soundtrack too. Gone was the John Carpenter-esque brooding menace, instead replaced by more of a thematic, almost Bondian score, and whilst there may have been far fewer techno-driven rave tracks, they were replaced by kick-ass, beat-infused hip-hop, driven by the some eclectic collaborations: Mos Def & Massive Attack, Cypress Hill & Roni Size and Ice Cube & Paul Oakenfold to name but a few. It perfectly suited the dark foreboding of many of the sequences and the style of the piece and will likely make you want to go out and pick up the accompanying soundtrack album of unusually blended artists right away. One classic moment sees Blade leading his new Bloodpack down the street in slow-motion, with Massive Attack feat. Mos Def’s I Against I thrumming along in the background. Classic.
As with Blade, Blade II was still not really a perfect movie. It may have been a perfect sequel, but that did not mean it was flawless. Whether it’s those dodgy effects moments (a wholly unconvincing CG Blade and CG Nyssa fighting against the UV lamp backdrop), the underutilised supporting cast members (cough Donnie Yen cough), the undeveloped story elements – like Whistler’s or Nyssa’s character arcs – or the sheer limitations of the budget that do creep through around the edges (the castle unconvincingly set within the modern vampire complex); or whether you just thought the more gory shock-body-horror went that little bit too far, even for a Blade movie, there were plenty of little niggles to bother viewers.
“You’re a human?!”
“Barely. I’m a lawyer.”
Also, as with the first movie, this was not the ‘original’ cut, although this time around it wasn’t the test audience reaction that saw footage fall to the cutting floor, but actually the director’s smart decisions. A whole 20-minute sub-story-arc was sliced from the film because the tone of the scenes filmed was not quite right – they looked a little cheap (one single 90 second scene from this 20 minute cut section remains in the deleted scenes section so you can see how poor the dialogue and set-up was; the one where Blade and Nyssa have clearly just had sex) and were acted even worse.
Without further evidence of what went into them it’s difficult to judge the full impact – certainly the scripted ideas were sound (and included much more weight on the Blade/Nyssa relationship), but the shot footage clearly must have been bad for del Toro to want to strip out the entire arc. At the end of the day, however, none of this really mattered – not the minor quibbles about finishing touches and dodgy effects and not the what-ifs of post-production edits – the sheer enjoyment factor was maxed-out in this sequel and everything else was long forgotten once the ash had settled.
This was a film where the director’s eye for atmospheric detail was perfect; where the star Wesley Snipes was at the absolute top of his game and surrounded by some excellent supporting players; where the ideas were brilliant – and different – and took the Blade franchise in fantastic, new, and previously unexpected directions. Blade II was, undeniably, far better than anybody could have possibly expected, and it still remains one of the best sequels of all time.
“You obviously do not know who you are f*cking with!”
Our Blade Trilogy retrospective concludes here with our review of Blade: Trinity.
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