1998, I remember it well. I was 13, Blade had just come out and no matter how many times I told my friends it was based off of a Marvel comic, they just wouldn’t believe me.
In this decade, it’s hard to fathom there was a time when movies based on Marvel Comics franchises simply could not make it out of Development Hell. Prior to Blade, what all did we have? That crappy Captain America movie from the ‘80s where he had rubber ears? Those Incredible Hulk TV movies starring Bill Bixby? A Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four flick that was never meant to be seen by the living? Aside from the cheap, embarrassing garbage we’d all like to forget, Marvel characters just did not exist on film in 1998. And then Blade snuck in under the radar because, really, who the f--k is Blade?
And let’s all be grateful for that.
After a surprise vampire attack, Karen (N’Bushe Wright) finds herself thrust into the bizarre underworld of Blade the Vampire Hunter (Wesley Snipes) and his mentor, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). Blade is a “daywalker”, a half-vampire who possesses all of the undead’s strengths but none of their weaknesses. He uses those powers to slay the bloodsuckers, though he may be running short on time, as his vampire half is slowly eclipsing his human side. At the top of Blade’s hitlist is Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), a powerful vampire… nightclub owner? Politician? Archeologist? It’s kind of unclear, but the point is that he’s found a means to resurrect an ancient vampire blood god who will turn all humans on Earth into creatures of the night. Only techno music and stabbing can stop him.
If you’ve never read Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic then I’d highly recommend you snag some of the Essential collections (if they’re still in print). They’re some of the publisher’s best output of the ‘70s that doesn’t involve Conan the Barbarian suplexing gorillas and chopping the heads off Vikings. Blade, as he was originally conceived, was a dude with an afro and green goggles who talked jive and played by his own rules. He was awesome, don’t get me wrong, but we all have Director Stephen Norrington’s 1998 feature film to thank for updating Blade for a modern audience.
Screenwriter David S. Goyer’s “punching-up” of Blade’s origin, alongside Wesley Snipe’s portrayal of the character, have since become the singular interpretation of the vampire hunter, having migrated to and superseded the source material. Blade was never a “daywalker” in the comics before this movie, but he sure as Hell is now. Not that it matters, I suppose. Three feature films and a TV series later and the dude still can’t hold down more than one miniseries every five years.
On the topic of the Blade movie, however, I think the fact that very few people outside of the comic shop knew who this guy was lent to its success. There was no cast-iron image of the character in the public eye and no precise expectations; the filmmakers were free to reinvent a total Z-lister into an absolute badass. And they succeeded.
Norrington’s direction is very “hip” and at times maybe too much so. The dude seems to have a nightclub and rave fetish and the entire film can probably be mapped out as a string of parties. I didn’t mind much of his “music video” approach to things; I actually liked how the “fast forward” car chase looked and the techno music complimented the fight sequences quite well, enhancing several visual cues. Other moments, such as a sequence where some Japanese schoolgirls sing a helium-pitched rap song that goes on for minutes… So, so angry.
Other than perhaps Willie Mays Hayes, Blade is the character Wesley Snipes will be remembered for until he’s in the ground and, as mentioned, his portrayal has become so iconic that he’s basically starring in the comics now (but probably not getting paid for it). Of the three “Blade” movies, I thought Snipes’ rendition was best in this one, as there’s a sense of humor to the character that got lost by the time the sequels rolled around. His reaction to the cop shooting him at the hospital, moments where he displays genuine joy and enthusiasm in slaughtering vampires and, yeah, his awesome “ice-skating uphill” line are character highlights in the film. Boil him down to just an angry, all-business guy who growls a lot and suddenly he just becomes boring; the brief instances where he would “break character” for a moment and say or do something funny are part of the charm.
Kris Kristofferson kinda phones in a typical “I’m too old for this s--t” geriatric mentor character (and I think he even says that hammy, overdone line, too), but he fits the part and plays the material well. Stephen Dorff plays an ultra-douchey villain in Deacon Frost, and while surface-wise he isn’t much of a match for Blade, he’s definitely got a dangerous charisma about him that makes it believable he’d have amassed so many followers. Who I really liked, though, was Donal Logue as Quinn, Frost’s comedy relief henchman. “Comedy relief henchman” is such an easy archetype to overplay and runs the risk of absolutely ruining scenes or even an entire film (think Otis from Superman: The Movie). Quinn is actually genuinely amusing and his humor never feels forced on the audience.
Blade has some crap to it, though. There are terribly stupid moments, such as Pearl, the obese vampire archivist with an annoying voice whose farts are supposed to be hilarious. Or try the anti-coagulant darts, which make vampires goofily puff-up into red balloons before popping. Worst offender is the CG animation. What was state of the art in 1998 is what we’re used to seeing on the SyFy Channel now. Even the simplest shapes and effects, such as a single drop of blood, look cartoony and unconvincing. Luckily, save for some moments in the climax (the winged skeletons and Frost’s blood regeneration), the CG elements aren’t overtly in-your-face, but come and go in seconds, often as background imagery during fight scenes. The “disintegrating” may grate on you when the movie starts, but by the end you’ll hardly even notice it anymore. And really, even though the effect is dated, it’s still pretty cool-looking.
At times, Blade made me feel like I was watching a video game. Every villain Blade stabs immediately vanishes in a cloud of explosive smoke like the Foot Soldiers in TMNT Arcade. And once he’s made his way through the final level, Blade gets to have a big boss battle with Deacon Frost on a circular platform with weapons hidden in rocks that he has to smash in order to retrieve. But that’s just part of the appeal, for some reason.
Dated elements all accounted for, Blade is still a solid action film, a solid vampire film and a solid superhero film. Though 2000’s X-Men is probably the flick that really kicked off the superhero movie craze, I think even it owes a debt of gratitude to Blade for paving the way.