Blade (1998)

Twenty years ago on this day, Blade was released to theatres in the US. And I thought this anniversary was as good an excuse as any to re-watch the film.

Seeing Blade for the first time in years, I was surprised how „modern“ this 1998-film still looks and feels. There are many reasons for this, and I probably understand only some of them. But I believe one reason is that Blade sticks to the “traditional” structure of a (super)hero film (the origin story, the mentor, the mission, etc.), a structure which we are even more used to and exposed to today through various franchises. Blade’s world also has a certain “Gotham” vibe, and there are some shots that seem like an homage to old-style noir-ish Batman or similar franchises. And since these stylistic elements are en vogue again today, Blade looks pretty up-to-date.

Talking of visuals: Blade’s black, military-style battle armour is also rather time-less and a lot of aspects of the colours and general style of this film are similar to aspects of the Underworld series and have thus been continued on screen up to this day. Admittedly, there are different nuances: Underworld has its famous bluish tinge and aims for a cold, slick, clinical look, while Blade has a more grim, earthy look using more red, more blood. Still, the fact that we have this similar-looking franchise which was very much still alive in 2017 and which has an equal emphasis on action and hand-to-hand combat contributes, I believe, to the fact that Blade hardly looks or feels dated at all. (Exceptions to this observation will follow.)

 

I am sure most people know the premise: With his mother having been bitten by a vampire during the late stages of pregnancy, Blade (Wesley Snipes) has become a special kind of semi-vampire with some of the advantages of vampirism (especially his strength and speedy healing), but none of the weaknesses. Unlike the vampires in this world, Blade does not react adversely to garlic or silver, and he will not burst into flames when exposed to sunlight, which is why the vampires refer to him as the “Daywalker”. Still, he is in need of medication in order to keep his body from fully transforming into a vampire.
Blade grew up to become a vampire hunter, yet he is not a hero but an anti-hero. He is not really in the hunting business to protect or save humans, he is in it for personal revenge – and possibly redemption.
Together with his human assistant Whistler (a combination of nurse and weapons expert played by Kris Kristofferson), he travels from city to city fighting vampires. The vampires in this world are a powerful secret society who have many “familiars” under their control: humans who will do their bidding. These humans can walk around in the daylight and act as the vampires’ agents, and through them the vampires have their eyes and ears in all key areas of public life, including the police.
The vampires are led by a council of elders, “born” vampires who hail from important houses with a very long tradition. They try to keep their operations secret and thus avoid large-scale conflict with humans. Their rules and policies are challenged by the powerful and ambitious Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), who was not born a vampire but merely turned, as the elders keep reminding him.

 

I like this constellation. You have the human world, unaware of what is really going on. You have Blade and Whistler, fighting their lonely battle against the vampires. And you have conflicts within the vampire world. This set-up creates a multi-layered world and a provides a lot of potential. Again, this is similar to the Underworld franchise which is going to follow a similar route: showing a world that is more complex than simply X vs. Y, a world with many players and lots of room for alliances and betrayal.

Unfortunately, the story-telling potential of this last aspect is far from being fully exhausted. There is some effective world-building, but there are also plenty of shortened scenes that amount more to world-teasing.

 

A lot of time passes before our hero and the lead villain finally face each other. But the film does not feel slow or dragged out; partially because some of the exposition about the vampire world is given through action and interaction instead of lectures. Still, there is some forced and painful exposition, courtesy of Whistler. The “recipient” of this exposition is a vampire victim Karen (N’Bushe Wright), recently saved by Blade, who serves as an audience surrogate.

The world and the conflicts hinted at in this film seem to indicate to me that the script by David S. Goyer might possibly be stronger than the final film, and that director Stephen Norrington (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and editor Paul Rubell might have been rather rough and careless when it came to cutting back some of the material.

Which brings me to the film’s weak parts. There is a car chase scene that is weirdly “sped-up” in some sort of time-lapse/fast-motion sort of way. It looks bad, and I can see no reason why they did this, because I have no idea what this was meant to achieve. Other special effects also vary in quality, with some being decidedly sub-par. Naturally, you can see that two decades lie between this film’s CGI and the amazing work done in this field today. And although I am not an expert in these things, it seems to me that some of the fight scenes are also filmed rather poorly compared to today’s standards, and this problem unfortunately extends to the final battle.
There is also an absurdly sexual blood-drinking scene, as if the filmmakers tried to make the most out of the film’s R-rating.

Finally, there are some problems with the character of Blade and the casting of Wesley Snipes. Blade is portrayed in this film as an unapproachable, emotionally distant anti-hero. And Snipes is definitely the right choice for this type of character. One might even be tempted to apply Thom Tuck’s quip about Steven Seagal’s acting skills and his choice of “emotionally unavailable” characters (see Against the Dark review) to Snipes as well. The problem here is that we have little chance or incentive to identify with the film’s protagonist, because he is so distant. Which means that that function has to be fulfilled by Wright’s Karen. She is the one the audience might identify with. But her character is not developed enough in this respect, so it does not really work.
There is also very little chemistry between Wright and Snipes and the film does not explore the potential of the clash of their different personalities. I also believe that the dialogue in their interactions in not all that good, which does not help.

That is no criticism of their general performance though, as both Snipes and Wright are very good in portraying their characters. The same goes for Kristofferson.
Smaller roles are filled nicely by Donal Logue and Tim Guinee. (Guinee also appeared in John Carpenter’s Vampires, which hit cinemas just two months after Blade.)

Stephen Dorff does a very nice job portraying the ambitious, over-confident Frost. I wish we had had more time to really get to know his back-story. The same goes for the great Udo Kier (BloodRayne) as one of the vampire elders, who is shamefully under-utilised in this film. More could have been done with the conflict between the two (as already hinted at above). And the general state of affairs in the vampire world – the history and authority of the council, for example – could have done with some more explanation. But maybe that’s just me; I am just very keen on history and detail. The filmmakers, on the other hand, assumed – perhaps correctly – that for the purpose of setting up this film it was enough to establish that a conflict existed, with no need to explain its origin or its minutiae.

 

As I said, Blade is a modern vampire film that holds up really well. And even though it is nothing special, it can easily be recommended to anyone with an interest in these super-hero-type vampire films.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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