More noise than signal


Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Take a trip back in time with us to 1998, a strange and confusing time where films based on Marvel comics were not the all-consuming media behemoths they are today, but a force entirely absent from cinemas since 1986’s disastrous Howard the Duck, barring perhaps a few highly limited releases of some straight to video dreck like the Dolph Lundgren version of The Punisher. I’m sure the success of Batman films through the nineties started to pique interest in Marvel properties, but even that had cratered a year before with Batman & Robin, the nadir’s nadir of adaptations.

So, it was a brave move for New Line to put money into another comic adaptation, however I suppose with Blade not being the obvious choice from Marvel’s buffet of characters (I’d certainly never seen or heard of him outside of this film franchise, even now), and vampires becoming the pop culture monster of choice in the likes of Buffy and From Dusk Till Dawn it’s perhaps not as risky a bet as it first seems. Financially at least, it paid off, and so while the subsequent appearance of Fox’s X-Men and Spider-man deservedly gets credit for Marvel’s cinema revival (or well, vival, as they weren’t exactly a force before then), it’s Blade that’s the starting point of it all.

But enough of the scene setting. “What is an Blade, and what it do?”, I hear you ask. Well, fear not, my grammatically challenged chum, let your ol’ pals fill you in. Wesley Snipes, of course, dons the sunglasses and leather trenchcoat of the titular daywalking half human, half vampire vampire hunter. He has all of the strengths of a vampire – speed, strength, cool tattoos, nice teeth – with none of their weaknesses – sunlight, garlic, silver – apart from the thirst for blood. This is controlled by a serum his grizzled vampire hunting buddy, Kris Kristofferson’s Whistler produces, although we’re told he’s building up a resistance to it, a Chekov’s gun that the franchise never gets round to triggering.

Vampires live all around us, but keep themselves to the shadows, the ruling families keeping a truce of sorts with human powerbrokers, much to Blade’s distaste. However, upstart Deacon Frost, played, unfortunately for us, by Stephen Dorff, makes a move to bring unbalance to the force, decreeing that vampires should openly take their place at the top of the food chain. His plan for this is to fulfil a prophecy from the vampire bible, which I think was called the Book of Eli, which will see the unleashing of the Blood God on an unsuspecting word. For this, he’ll need the Daywalker’s blood, to which Blade is less than agreeable, hence all of this conflict and unpleasantness.

I don’t think a lot more detail of the plot is needed – it’s very much not the films strong suite – other than perhaps to mention N’Bushe Wrights’ haematologist Karen Jenson, saved from being turned early on, who goes on to give us an exposition sounding board, and yet, somehow, with even this minimal involvement in the plot, a bigger role than for most women in action cinema of the era. It’s a low bar.

Blade wasn’t warmly embraced by critics at the time, and I can see why. There’s a number of things that could use a rethink. While this is a top tier Stephen Dorff performance, that essentially means “serviceable”, so there’s room for improvement there. More critically, while we’re a few years and a number of millions of dollars away from The Matrix‘s redefinitions at this point, the standard for CG in film was significantly higher than Blade was able to muster. Some of it’s just conventionally dated, such as the subway train, but the effects work in the final battle is ropier than a rope shop storeroom. Given that it was a, I believe, a reshoot from a poorly received different CG-heavy set piece, I’m sure everyone did the best they could with the time and money available to them. Unfortunately, it’s not great, and a sour note to end on.

Particularly because the rest is spiffing. Plaudits of course go to Snipes, who expertly traverses very thin tightrope indeed of a cool, over the top, slightly camp bad ass, over which a giant abyss of extreme ridiculousness, where if you look closely you can just see Vin Diesel’s Riddick waving at you. Just as key to the piece is Kristofferson’s grizzled veteran, and the rapport the two slide into very early on sells their backstory unusually well for this sort of thing. Pleasingly, he gets as many cutting and funny lines as Snipes does, and it’s a joy to watch them bounce off each other.

One thing we didn’t really cover all that much in the Snipes episode is his action credentials, particularly the more martial arts side of things. Well, he is one crisp mother hubbard, particularly those high kicks that I think he does better than anyone in Western cinema. His physicality and poise sells some, let’s be honest, silly action, and makes it fun to watch. Kudos, then to director Stephen Norrington, and/or the fight choreographers for delivering a crucial plank of the film.

I suppose we should mention in passing, given what I’d been saying in the intro to this, that the year before this, ’97, New Line also released Spawn, another comic book adaptation which does have a certain similar grimdarkian aesthetic to it. It is, however, a joyless dumpster fire of a film, so let’s all just go back to pretending it didn’t exist for the good of our own health.

So, I’m gratified to find that time really hasn’t diminished my enjoyment of Blade, and it’s still top tier action entertainment, albeit one that’s bettered by the sequel.