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? George Lucas’s Mega Flop Howard The Duck, 1990’s Captain America movie where he had rubber ears, those Incredible Hulk TV movies starring Bill Bixby, and a Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four flick that was never meant to be seen? Aside from the cheap, embarrassing garbage we’d all like to forget, Marvel characters just did not exist on film until 1998, then Blade snuck in under the radar because, really, who the fuck is “Blade”?
And let’s all be grateful for that.
Blade, as he was originally conceived in Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic, was a dude with an afro and green goggles who talked jive and played by his own rules. 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portrayal of the character, have since become the singular interpretation of the vampire hunter, having migrated to and superseded the source material.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 is now.
On the topic of the Blade movie, however, I think the fact that very few people 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 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. Of the three Blade movies, I thought Snipes’s 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 shit” geriatric mentor character, 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. Then there is 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. Quinn is actually genuinely amusing and his humor never feels forced on the audience.
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 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.
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.