Blade (1998) Review
Originally posted to Justice Bulletin, August 2012
There was next to zero expectation for Blade upon its original release. The standard for comic book superhero films during that period was resting comfortably between mildly amusing and unwatchable. Blade even followed the same pattern as many of the crappy superhero movies of its era. It used a little-known C-list hero, it didn’t follow the comics, it employed a first-time director on the cheap, and it was tailored as a vehicle for its star. The star in question was Wesley Snipes, who at the time was still riding on a wave of success as an ass-kicking action hero in popcorn classics like Passenger 57 and Drop Zone, (a far cry from today). Those factors, among others, gave me the unmistakable impression in the summer of ’98 that Blade was going to suck as much balls as those other movies, and therefore was hardly worth my notice.
However it seems that fate had other plans that day, when the planets aligned to grant a much maligned genre an unexpected ray of badass excellence. (I mean c’mon, he wears sunglasses at night!) And I’m happy to announce that for the most part, Blade still holds up after all these years.
The opening scene is as memorable as any movie could ask for. It starts with a teasing scene in a hospital where a woman in labor arrives with a bite on her neck. (30 seconds, origin over). We then rocket to the present day, where a naïve party animal (Kenny Johnson, long before becoming a mainstay of FX’s The Shield) follows his sexy date to a seedy underground rave. He gets into the dancing, but gets the sense before long that something isn’t right. The sprinklers open, spraying gallons and gallons of crimson blood everywhere, and the rave’s true nature is revealed: everyone at this club is a vampire, and poor, poor Kenny is dinner. As soon as the horror elements have ratcheted up the tension, Blade suddenly appears and starts with the killing. And that’s just the first five minutes.
In his original habitat on the comic page, Blade was always an incidental character in the landscape of Marvel heroes, occasionally guest-starring in the company’s horror comics in the 70’s. But in his solo film, there’s no Spider-Man, no Avengers, no Fantastic Four, just Wesley Snipes against an entire underworld nation of blood-sucking undead.
The script sells its mythos surprisingly well. Blade wages a one-man war on the vampire overclass ruling the world in secret. Add to that a healthy dose of beautifully shot martial-arts action a year before The Matrix made it trendy, as well as the requisite amount of gore for a vampire movie. That’s the other wonderful thing: this movie uses its R-rating. Even though the vampires normally crumble into bloodless ash when killed, Blade still finds new ways to make an icky mess of his enemies.
Snipes is at his most stoic here. As Blade he’s so single-minded he comes off as fairly two-dimensional. Aside from a few one-liners, it’s hard to get a bead on him, though it’s easy to see that Blade enjoys the rush, and prefers excessive violence over the quick, efficient kill. N’Bushe Wright handles the audience surrogate duties as well as more than her share of moving the plot where needed. Refreshingly, she is most definitely not a romantic interest. Kris Kristofferson adds some gruff hillbilly swagger to the otherwise straightforward mentor role of Whistler.
Stephen Dorff plays Deacon Frost, a younger hotheaded vampire with his own plans for world domination. Regarding his performance, Dorff carries not a bit of gravitas nor presence, and Frost can come off silly while he tries to be intimidating. He drops F-bombs way more than necessary (since this is an R-movie and he’s allowed to), and he looks downright feeble next to the hulking Blade. But watching the movie again, all this kind of worked in a weird way, because Frost is supposed to be a punk. He’s supposed to be young and brash and act nothing like the buttoned-up centuries-old vampires above him. At the end of the day it’s still hard to look forward to seeing Blade in a final deathmatch when his antagonist is an immature brat. But Dorff actually brings quite a bit of charm and swagger to his performance. Any good vampire needs to have charm.
The movie is very well paced. It spaces out those exquisitely choreographed action scenes with just enough humor and/or character development. Things slow down quite a bit in the third act, as we build up to Blade going one-on-one with Deacon’s final boss mode. It’s actually a bit of a letdown after all the talk of resurrecting the blood god and the vampire apocalypse. Though after watching the DVD extras, I’m rather glad they didn’t go with the original ending.
Blade represented a turning point for comic- and superhero-based films in general and for Marvel in particular. C-list hero or not, they finally had a big-screen gem that they could call their own. The film would pave the way for more serious and mature movie superheroes, as well as for A-list properties such as X-Men and Spider-Man down the line. It still stands as a slick, exciting, and well-made mix of fantasy, horror, and comic book action.
Final score: 8.5/10