bladeBlade was an unlikely film to kick-start the comic book movie revolution. Outside of comic book circles the character was almost completely unknown. His own book series only lasted ten issues in 1994. He was introduced in the 70s, but had little cache. For the mass audience, Blade was a complete unknown. And with an R-rating, the intended audience was hardly the “everybody” that latter-day comic book films tried to please/appease.

But, after decades of failure, it was an important first step into the movie world for Marvel.* Blade succeeded, and the confluence of this new financial viability, the upcoming crop of filmmakers who grew up loving comics, and the new special FX capabilities of CGI meant that there was a real possibility that comic books could be a major source of revenue for movies in an increasingly risk-averse business, with terrified executives only ever spending the big money on product that was pre-sold.

*The major Marvel production of the previous decade was Howard the Duck, which had an (inflation-adjusted) higher budget than Blade

But Blade is barely a comic book movie. It fits more comfortably into the dark-fantasy/horror genre, a familiar film setting. It may or may not be a coincidence that Blade was released right about when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was getting interesting/popular, and at the tail-end of the Anne Rice-inspired vampire boom*. Blade stars Wesley Snipes as the titular character, a vampire-human hybrid (they call him the Daywalker) who stalks the evil vampy bad guys, kills them wherever he can, and fights to stave off his own thirst for human blood.

*Vampires didn’t start with Twilight, kids. In fact, in my lifetime there have been at least three separate pop vampire phenoms – Anne Rice (which began, to my memory, a little before the adaptation of Interview with the Vampire was released, but well after the release of the novel), Buffy, Twilight. It’s a recurring cycle, and one that will almost assuredly come around again when the teen romance angle grows tiresome.

Wesley Snipes is charismatic in the role. He’s a superficially tough guy who acts like he’s the hardest guy in the room, but Snipes undercuts the bad-assery with a few moments of levity. He only smiles when he kills vampires, but boy does he enjoy it. Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), his old mentor, supplies him an arsenal of vamp-killing weapons.

Blade earns its R-rating with copious curses and bloody explosions. The villains are nasty and brutal, and Blade is nastier. Since he wasn’t born a vampire, Deacon Frost is a black sheep of the vampire counsel (man, vampires love bureaucracy), but he thinks his social betters are too staid and complacent: vampires should be in charge, not behind the scenes. Running things.

Director Stephen Norrington and writer David Goyer (later the co-scribe of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) create an attractive, if illogical film. It opens with a vampire party, with an unsuspecting victim (Lem from The Shield!) dancing with hot vampire chicks, who punch him. Then the sprinklers go off, spraying blood everywhere. It doesn’t make much sense (wouldn’t a party where everybody brings their own victim be better?  And if they had so much blood lying around what was the point of bringing Lem?) but it looks neat. It creates a proper venue in which to introduce Blade.

To this film, style is certainly more important than substance – but the style works. The vampires are hot and skinny. The time-lapse shots of shadows creeping across the streets are insinuating and creepy. The actions scenes are fluid. This was filmed before Shakycam had become the only way to shoot fights, so it is possible to see the action in one shot lead to the reaction in the next – an art that seems, in the last decade, to have been mostly lost. Blade rescues a woman from being bit by Daniel Logue (in a surprisingly creepy performance) and keeps her alive, instead of killing her. Coincidentally, she happens to be a phlebotomist, and thinks she can cure Blade.

The action plays out in fairly standard ways – Deacon upends the vampire council, translates ancient documents, and plans on incarnating himself as some kind of blood god (and, maybe, turning everyone else into a vampire – which seems like a terrible idea for someone who wants to be part of a select master race). Blade overcomes inner demons. It’s standard genre fare. So in a film like this, the key pleasures are found in how well these standards are developed.

And Blade is pretty good at it. He himself has a decent internal dilemma (his vampire nature makes it possible for him to fight the vampires, but it makes him walk the edge, too – he always craves blood), and his relationship with Whistler and the rescued Dr. Karen Jenson is handled well. The filmmakers sketch in the vampire world, but not too elaborately. Sure, it’s ridiculous that the Temple of Eternal Night has been lost for generations but apparently is just a couple hours outside of L.A. Well, movies have to happen somehow.

It is difficult to find any larger themes in Blade‘s adventure story. Blade takes his defects and turns them into assets. He learns to open his heart a little bit. Mostly, though, he kills vampires. Blade is content to be a neat story. No more, but not less, and that’s often enough.


Blade Data file

Hero: Blade, aka Eric Brooks.

Powers: Blade was born a half-vampire (his mother was turning and “died” while he was being born). He’s super-strong and fast, and is some kind of martial arts expert. He can also drink blood to sustain his life, like a normal vampire.

Limitations: Blade doesn’t want to be a bloodsucker, so he has to take a serum that keeps his blood-thirst down. His body is growing immune to the stuff, so he might not be able to resist vampirism for long. Also, his work and lifestyle make personal relationships impossible. He’s a lone wolf, whose only friend is a professional relation.

Origin story: Blade has an admirably brief origin. In the beginning we see him being born. In the next scene he is grown up and kicking ass. Whistler fills in his background to Karen Jenson, but all of the action in the film is forward-moving.

Villain: Deacon Frost is the primary villain. He’s a member of an angry subclass, who wants to take over from his social betters, to destroy the hierarchy of his society so that he’s no longer on the bottom. He threatens children, he kills people he’s mad at, and he develops computer programs to figure out long-lost rituals. Resentment is his main attribute. Besides being a vampire.

Villain Plot: Ultimately what Deacon Frost wants to do is to fulfill a ritual (for which he needs Blade’s blood) in order to become the blood god La Magra. Deacon describes him thusly:

He’s a hurricane. An act of God. Anyone caught in his path will instantly be turned. Everyone you’ve ever known…everyone you’ve ever fucking loved…it won’t matter who’s pureblood and who’s not. How are you gonna cure the whole fucking world?

Which brings out the major logical conflict in Deacon’s plot – he wants to be king of the hill of vampires, and views human as cattle. So he wants to turn into a vampire god who will…turn all the cattle into vampires. So there’s no-one to eat. That it doesn’t “matter who’s pureblood and who’s not” seems to directly contradict his other stated goal, of being top dog on the planet, apex predator. So his motivations can, I think, fairly be called confused. It isn’t the sort of misstep that ruins a movie, but afterward it does reduce the credibility of the villain’s plot. Also, it fits firmly in the “I’ve got a bomb that will turn you all into a monster, just like me!” thing that has became a very standard trope (though a quick glance through TV tropes doesn’t show an entry).

Major story conflict: Blade vs. the vampire world. He destroys them as he destroys himself. Deep.

Why does Blade go after Deacon: First, because he’s a local vampire boss, and Blade don’t like him. Secondly, because Blade becomes friendly with Dr. Karen, and she’s a target for Deacon since she survived her vampirism. Thirdly, because Deacon directly attacks Blade’s hideout and kills Whistler. (The secret fourth reason – Blade doesn’t know it, but Deacon turned his mom [and him subsequently] and keeps her around as his pleasure vampire chick.)

Subtext: Deacon is the part of Blade that Blade hates. He can’t give in to his animal/vampire nature, so he has to destroy it all around him. In an example of “We’re not so different, you and I…”, Blade is the only one capable of fighting the vampires, because he has similar strengths.

Action scene style: Straightforward. A lot of in-camera movement, a lot of cutting, but no shaky cam stuff.

Body count: 95 (thanks AOBG)

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