Sunday, June 18, 2017

Blade (1998) Review



I think it's incredible how common, how household, so many super-hero names have become. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor; they're all some of the most popular characters in the world right now thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These characters, once so obscure, now make billions of dollars annually from various sources. Obviously, they were brought out of obscurity thanks to the contributions of their creators. The Punisher is an obscure character that's only being brought into the light thanks to good writing on Daredevil, not the catastrophic films from the 2000s. Deadpool is one of the most popular characters in the world right now, but I'd be hardpressed to say how popular he was outside of a comic book store pre-2010. And what if I told you that one of the most obscure comic book characters in the world is the very reason that we have such celebrated movies today? People attribute X-Men and Spider-Man to being the modern superhero movie...but even they must acknowledge that it is Blade that helped push the genre to what it is today.
*Spoilers for Blade, but short thoughts: Blade is one of the most underrated comic book movies out there and is responsible for what we have today. It's a fun, flawed, action movie with likable and memorable characters, moments, and dialogue that creates an overall good atmosphere and dissuades from tropes that you would expect. Go watch it.*

Before Blade the only three legitimately meaningful and good super hero movies were Superman, Superman II, and Batman. Batman Returns was creepy and unsettling, and the other four movies were terrible, god-awful films that were more about trying to milk success than tell a story that actually embodied the characters.

Blade throws that out the window, and creates one of the most iconic super hero movies that nobody talks about. I mean, who is Blade, anyway? The first time I heard of Blade was in Marvel Ultimate Alliance during the Murderworld stage because he was stuck in a crane machine off to the side and he had a cool moveset. That was it. He's such a minor character in the Marvel mythos that I'm surprised you still see his name pop up every few months from time to time on websites with rumors about his appearances. Even Ghost Rider or the Inhumans aren't as obscure as Blade is nowadays thanks to the television series.

But without Blade there is no X-Men, because Blade took a property and did it's own thing with it. It created characters and mythos that were based on existing properties, but created a funny, action-filled, and sometimes emotional drama that, at times, doesn't even feel like a super-hero movie. And isn't it interesting that the best films of the genre typically aren't really super-hero movies? Captain America: Winter Soldier is a spy thriller. The Dark Knight is a detective story. Wonder Woman is a war movie. Logan is a western. What's Blade?

Blade's just a vampire movie with flashy kung-fu action. It's not about the references or the extraneous details.

It's about a man who has suffered, all his life, because of being put in a situation beyond his control but is using his all his power to help people and end a skurge that threatens the world. He's making sure nobody has to go through what he does, and it creates an incredibly fun movie.

And, honestly, I wouldn't know it was a comic book movie if I were a casual viewer. The only supernatural element is vampirism, so, it could be seen as an action-oriented monster movie. There are some comic-booky elements, like men in suits sitting in a black room. Or over-the-top kungfu and a villain that wants to take over the world.

Probably the weakest part of Blade is the narrative as it stands on its own. Blade, played superbly by Wesley Snipes, is a vampire hybrid that fights against the growing amount of evil vampires in his city. Meanwhile, an evil corporation of vampires, including Stephen Dorff's character Deacon Frost (also a vampire), want to try and continue their influence from the shadows. All the while, Frost plans to enact an ancient prophecy that will resurrect the Blood God and eliminate the weak and fragile humanity.

Again, a plot that's pretty straightforward. The logic behind it is silly, but that's what we're here for. And it's not like the movie plays it straight, either. Without breaking the Fourth Wall, the movie is incredibly self-aware that this is a silly concept. When Blade fights, he often turns to the camera, cracks a smile, and then does some sick kung-fu. He does little fist-bumps and makes silly gestures that are so outlandish you can't help but laugh at the fun you're having.

Not to mention that his initial appearance is incredibly goofy; it's the typical crowd parting to reveal Blade. But what sells it is the dialogue. Everyone, all the vampires anyway, are whispering that it's Blade. The entire room, hundreds of people are scared of one person. That's intimidating.

Another problem that the public tends to have about remembering Blade is that they'll say "Deadpool is the first R-rated super-hero movie" and they can't believe it took so long.

I bet if you showed them the first real scene of Blade, in Frost's nightclub, without telling them the rating then they would know that Blade is not going to have the Disney label slapped on the back of it. But it's such a memorable scene, and such a cool image.

It starts with that stupid flashing to show characters moving fast, but when it cuts to the blood pouring from the sprinklers, it creates a terrifying atmosphere. The man, our POV character in the scene, has such a great, slow reaction to what's really happening, and all the while you see Frost lingering in the background. And from there, in that scene, it's all super cool.

The fighting is incredible; Wesley Snipes as Blade has such great charisma in that moment and throughout the movie. The camera's not shaking, we're not seeing only half the action. No, we see it all in camera and with some incredible moves, like when Blade tosses the throwing star across the room and slices off three vampire's heads.

Part of the problem with Blade is that it takes a while to get back to the action. It's so high-octane and crazy that the plot, the main plot in many ways, about Karen, played by N'Bushe Wright, trying to find a cure for herself and for Blade, as they both near fatal vampirism, is sort of boring. But it isn't as if Karen isn't an interesting character. She gets in danger and while her instinct is fear, by the time Blade shows up she's ready to fight back.

And she's adamant about the cure. Wright doesn't play it over-the-top, but rather has a very subtle performance. She's keeping cool so that she can stay relaxed. If she freaks out, it'll give Blade and Whistler, played by Kris Kristofferson, a reason just to kill her as if she were another bitten person. So, she takes her job in making the cure very seriously, and tries to learn all she can about Blade and the war against vampires. And, oddly enough, I'm not that bored by the scenes of exposition.

Kristofferson plays such a good Whistler that his death is a very sad moment. He's the mentor figure, but also has a great scene where he has to rescue Blade from Frost's minions that makes you believe this old man could totally hunt vampires in his age.

Also, brief aside: when people talk about definitive roles, without a doubt Wesley Snipes as Blade should be up there. This man is Blade. He brings the charm, he brings the edge, he is everything about Blade. I couldn't imagine Blade as anyone else, because nobody else would handle what this movie required of Blade. Snipes, in the span of thirty-seconds, has a scene where he goes from flipping dudes and killing vampires, to cracking a smile at the camera as a knowing wink, and then right back to the dude in black. He delivers his lines with such ferocity, except the one-liners, that you get that this is one dude not to be messed with. He made not be the best with emoting, but I'll be damned if he doesn't make some ridiculous dialogue work.

But, back to the overall subject: for being a movie that tries to cram in Blade's backstory and balance this strange subplot about the Blood God, you do get the mythos of the vampire society. It's simple, but it also gives reason for what Frost is doing. He's not pure-blood, like Blade in many ways, and is therefore socially inferior, but even a man that is socially inferior can create more of an uproar than a man who is "superior" but does nothing. Frost isn't some angsty punk looking for attention, he's looking to actually do something instead of just sitting around. Is his plan noble? Hell no! He wants to resurrect a god and wipe out humanity. But at least he's doing something.

How many villains nowadays do we see that just sit in ivory towers and work through their minions? Frost gets involved. His first confrontation with Blade pushes Blade to the edge, and it's intimidating. That scene with the little kid in the city is frightening and suspenseful, and it really highlights what Dorff and Snipes brought to the rivalry between Frost and Blade. You so rarely see that in superhero movies these days. Yeah, Dr. Strange standing off against Dormammu is fine, but you don't see villains get personal anymore. And unlike Amazing Spider-Man 2 where there's no history and you barely feel the impact of Green Goblin killing Gwen Stacy, in this movie, you feel the terror behind Frost about to kill a little girl because this dude means it. Green Goblin does it and we're supposed to care because he's barely been in the movie, and Dane Dehaan's performance does the moment no justice. Dorff brings it with Frost, and that scene alone is worthy of mention.

Not to mention Frost's totally fun sidekicks. Blade only has one (Whistler, really, is his own guy, and he has to take Karen under his wing for both protection and backstory). But Frost's sidekicks, the only named one, I believe, being Quinn played by Donal Logue, are so much fun and can be annoying, but can also just bring that goofy element to the story. Plus, Quinn goes out in such a good yet anticlimatic way that's so fitting for his character.

Another weak part of Blade is the twist that his mother is still alive. It really doesn't add much to the story and just serves to reveal that Frost was the one that initially bit his mother and vicariously created Blade as a "daywalker," but that could have been revealed in a simple line of dialogue. Still, his ultimate capture leads to what is both a terrifying and yet oddly sexual scene where Blade drinks Karen's blood. The way it's shot makes it seem somewhat erotic, but you slowly realize that Blade is giving into the monster. It's strange, but it works, so I can't really complain about it?

And I love love love the ending of the movie (including Blade's ridiculous line of "Some mother******s are always trying to ice skate uphill.") where Blade and Karen DON'T end up together and it mirrors Blade's first appearance as he arrives in Moscow, carrying on he and Whistler's mission, of fighting the vampires in different cities. It's so good because there was zero romance between our male and female lead and in most movies today I would have no doubt they would end up together (see: Jurassic World). Plus, Blade's carrying on the mission, man. He accepts his role as a monster for justice! So good.

Blade is a movie that I think many people need to go back and rewatch. Is it perfect, or the best comic book movie? No. But it helped push a genre that is now celebrated. Blade showed that you can have funny, sometimes cheesy, characters as well as a dark tone. Don't forget that the scene in which blood rains down from sprinklers is the same scene that starts with a stoner walking into a nightclub. That's an odd combination that this movie easily pulls off. We wouldn't see a "dark" movie, really until X-Men 2 and then Batman Begins, but this probably put faith back into an industry whose last movie had been Batman and Robin.

I want more movies like Blade. Deadpool is the closest example, but even Deadpool can be a bit dark sometimes. Logan is a solid R for emotional reasons, not really anything else. A movie like Blade, which could be done for characters like Moon Knight or Deathstroke, is something seriously lacking in the comic book film industry. Blade is dark, but at times corny. It's edgy, but super funny. Frost is a scary, but often cheesy, villain; Blade is a conflicted, but quipy, character. Balance, folks. It's what makes a great comic book movie.

And Blade is most certainly that.

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