Sunday, October 07, 2018

Fearless Vampire Hunter

Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998)

Blade (1998, directed by Stephen Norrington) didn't seem like a landmark film at the time of its release, but time has been kind to it. It remains a shock that this film and this character were the first foundations laid in what has become the Marvel Entertainment empire. Blade never had a comic book of his own prior to the movie. He was a supporting character from the long-forgotten Tomb of Dracula series in the 1970s. And yet was the first Marvel Comics character to become a big screen success after previous attempts--famously Howard the Duck, less famously The Punisher and Captain America--crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. But more than that. Blade ushered in both a cinematic idiom and design aesthetic that would spread like wildfire throughout cinema. The Matrix movies were the immediate inheritors of Blade's fetish-attired action look, but you can see it in the Underworld movies, too, and in the Resident Evil movies, and in countless vampire films and television shows littering the backwash in the film's resulting wake in the myth pool. Pick up any given "urban fantasy" romance novel these days and you'll see an echo of Blade's influence right there on the cover. Guaranteed.

Blade follows the exploits of the eponymous hero as he fights a secret war against the vampires that live among us. Blade has the advantages granted to him by an accident of his birth: his mother was in labor when she was bitten by a vampire, and Blade was born with all of the powers of a vampire, but without the weaknesses. He can walk around in sunlight, he is unaffected by silver and garlic. Although he feels the thirst for blood, he can control it with a serum that's made for him by his mentor, Whistler. The vampires call him "The Daywalker." Opposing Blade is Deacon Frost, an upstart vampire lord who is upsetting the ancient order of the vampire clans. Frost is a "turned" vampire, rather than a pure vampire who was born as one, and the heads of the vampire clans distrust and dislike him. He has power and followers, though, and he has made a mission of translating parts of the Book of Erebus--the vampire "Bible"--whose meaning has been lost for millennia. His long game is to summon the vampire god, La Magra, and lead the vampires in a cleansing war to supplant humans as the dominant species on Earth. Caught in the middle of all of this is Dr. Karen Jensen, who is unfortunate enough to be an attending physician when the vampire, Quinn, is brought into her hospital as a burn victim from a run-in with Blade. Quinn revives, of course, and bites Karen as he makes his escape. Blade rescues Karen as Quinn makes his escape, then takes her to his lair in order to treat her for her vampirism. Whistler thinks he should have killed her, but they're in time and prevent her from becoming a vampire. She has a useful skill, though: she's a hematologist, and Blade is building up a resistance to the serum that keeps the thirst at bay. Meanwhile, Frost completes his project, and discovers that Blade himself is the key to summoning the vampire god...

Blade (1998)

Blade exists at a cinematic nexus between the action movies of the Hong Kong new wave, the CGI special effects movie, the superhero movie, and the horror movie. Unlike many films that occupy so many cinematic idioms at once, Blade seems to arise naturally from all of them. It announces itself as a horror movie right off: comely vampire Traci Lords leads an unwitting dudebro into the depths of a meat packing plant where a secret door hides a rave. The assorted clubgoers seem disinterested in him until the sprinkler system douses the entire room with blood. Like the punks a generation earlier, Goth culture is associated with deviance and villainy, but given that the heroes of this film are Goth-styled badasses, that's okay. It has an even hand with such things. Blade's arrival on the scene is the kind of iconic framing that action stars crave but either never get or which wind up looking ridiculous when they come. Wesley Snipes, done up in black armor, black duster, and bearing a silvered katana, does not look ridiculous. He looks like he means business, and the film proceeds with its first action sequence with Blade chopping up vampires like they're so many extras in a samurai film. The interplay between Blade and Quinn in this scene suggests a much longer story without actually having to stop and provide exposition ("I'm getting a little tired of chopping you up. Thought I might try fire for a change."). The war has been going on for a long time. Other elements of the film play like scenes from the apocalypse, whether the grotesque vampire archivist or Dragonetti's unfortunate encounter with the rising sun.

Blade (1998)

This is a lean action film, edited with propulsive forward momentum and rarely stopping for very long. The scenes that examine vampire politics are as close to resting points as the film permits. It's edited with a surprising clarity of action. The geography of characters is usually clear, and scenes flow from one to the next with a purpose. Director Stephen Norrington comes to the director's chair from a career in special effects, which wouldn't suggest he's a skilled director of bodies in motion, but he's mostly good at it here (his subsequent career, however....).  Norrington is a little too enamoured with digital effects, though, and when the film presents us with vampire disintegrations a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it begins to resemble a video game. When the film presents the god version of Deacon Frost, the special effects really let the film down (and did in 1998--this isn't just a matter of two decades of special effects advances). This doesn't hurt the movie as much as it could have, but it's a blemish on the film's otherwise sleek surfaces.

Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998)

The film wouldn't work without Snipes. Snipes had been trying for years to get a Black Panther film off the ground, but wound up "settling" for this film. He acted as a producer as well as a star and his investment in the role is visible in every scene he's in. Stephen Dorff, by contrast, seems like a frat boy playing at being a vampire, though this is of a piece, I think. Certainly, Frost earns all of the disdain Udo Kier's vampire chieftain feels toward him. Kris Kristofferson is fine doing the crusty old man part as Whistler. He gets some of the film's best lines, and alone of the supporting cast members got invited back for the sequel. He's a good addition to the character's mythology. N'bushe Wright has rather more to do than most damsel/girlfriend characters, which is refreshing, but she's not co-equal with Blade himself. This is a one-man show.

In truth, I had mostly forgotten how much fun this film is in the wake of Guillermo Del Toro's sequel. This film is generally pretty good even if it doesn't have the visionary sensibilities of that second film. And Blade, not its sequel struck the spark. The conflagration is still burning.

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