Director: Stephen Norrington
Writer: David Goyer
Starring: Wesley “Willy Mays Hays” Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, N’Bushe Wright, Tracy Lords (you know who she is)
Charles: Today we’ll be looking at the film that turned around Marvel’s cinematic fortunes, brought Hong Kong-style action (back) into the mainstream in a big way, and kept Stephen Dorff off the streets for another few months. I’m talking about my personal all-time favorite action movie: Blade.
A blaxsploitation character created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan to fight Dracula every once in a while, the character was apparently a huge favorite of martial arts aficionado Wesley Snipes. The film takes some of the character’s comic roots – a half-vampire born to a mother killed by the villainous Deacon Frost – and turns the whole thing into a Wu-Tang riff, complete with deadly strikes, way-too-cool posturing, and sick beats (the soundtrack for this movie might benefit from the Spawn: The Album treatment sometime in the future).
Starring Snipes as the tattooed, taciturn, gun and katana-toting title character, it concerns his attempts to take down vampire Deacon Frost (Dorff), the man who killed Blade’s mother and has some grand plan to create a vamp-pocalypse. Blade is backed up by his hillbilly Q, Whistler (played with a crusty, drunken swagger by singer-songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson) and Karen (Wright), a hematologist who accidentally gets dragged into Blade’s world by a not-as-dead-as-you-think vamp.
Its rich world-building, larger-than-life characters, and subversion of exploitation tropes rockets this movie to the top of my favorite films list in spite of some shortcomings which we’ll get into later.
Matt: Wowsa. That’s a whole heapin’ portion of love. I definitely cannot say that Blade is at the top of any of my lists. However. I do think it’s a well-done actioner and a successful blending of genres, especially for a comic book adaptation coming at the beginning of the superhero on-screen craze when audiences thought all heroes wore tights and held only pure intentions.
I think there are two reasons for that. One, Blade is not a superhero, he’s a vampire killer. Most people didn’t even know Blade was a comic book character until after the movie’s success which made the R rating much easier for both Marvel and New Line to agree on. And being that the movie is a horror/action blend, it allows for a nitty gritty approach where tracheas are ripped out and innards spilled quite often. Second, screenwriter David Goyer does a nice job here slow playing certain elements and fulfilling our immediate thirst with others. He gives us just enough inner conflict and self hate to make Blade an interesting character. It’s a style that would later become his trade mark as people got more accepting of the morose superhero in a universe where good does not always triumph.
For me this movie’s success rests heaviest on Wesley Snipes. Most people only know Snipes from his action films, most of which I have to admit to not having heard of (Zig Zag? Undisputed?). I have always been a fan for his smaller, less foot-to-the-face roles (supporting parts in King of New York and Mo Better Blues, to leading man in Jungle Fever and White Men Can’t Jump). However, here I think Snipes pulls off the growling monotone perfectly and his athleticism isn’t just for a few action scenes – this whole movie is one long workout session with a double digit body count. But thanks to the script and Snipes’ charisma, you still feel an attachment to the character.
Charles: Snipes has had an unfortunate career trajectory over the last decade thanks to serious tax woes (he tried not to pay them) and some unfortunate screen choices (a LOT of DTV action movies where perhaps Steven Segal was unavailable). In the 90’s he was all over the place in high-profile (if not high-quality) movies like Passenger 57, U.S. Marshalls, and The Fan. Most importantly, he played Nino Brown in the war on crack classic, New Jack City alongside Ice-T and Chris Rock.
You mention his charisma – it’s also because Snipes is an action star who can act. He coils his portrayal of Blade up with an unnerving helping of rage that comes out in both the action and dramatic scenes. Consider how both the screenplay and Snipes’ performance handle the opening “Bloodbath” sequence – the most iconic scene from the movie:
For him it’s work, but work he’s really into. Look at it – he’s enjoying herding the vampires like cattle, panicking them. Most of his kills are up close, quick, and terrible, and (thanks to some proficient editing) we don’t lose any details of the fights thanks to needlessly jerky cutaways. Blade deploys a series of tools to kill the vamps and does it mostly wordlessly. There’s a lone human in the crowd in need of saving, but it’s clear that Blade didn’t show up to save him, he came to murder the hell out of vampires.
It’s an action scene that reinforces character; something that I think is often missing in superhero action films. As much as I admired and yes, even loved The Dark Knight I can’t point to many action scenes involving Batman which gave us insight into his character (the Joker, yes, but Batman, not as much).
One other performance should be mentioned: genre fans will recognize Udo Kier as Dragonetti, the leader of the Vampire Council. Although his part in the film is brief, it’s nice to see the genre vet appearing here as the haughty, elder vamp. He plays the role with a hostile, sexual energy directed towards co-star Dorff.
The movie is also very visually interesting, using some shorthand to create divisions between the heroes and villains: Blade and Whistler operate outside of the city in a dilapidated warehouse. Everything they use is handmade and built from the ground up. Alternately, the villains live in glass towers with water towers and supermodel vampire groupies. The movie characterizes them as being integral to the life of the city, owning buildings and businesses through clandestine agreements with the governments and authorities.
Dorff, (here, in his only enjoyable role) as Deacon Frost rejects a life living alongside humanity in some kind of symbiosis. His ill-considered attempts to resurrect some kind of vampire blood god aim to unsettle any sort of balance the two species
might have, putting vampires at the top of the food chain. By the way, Frost’s plot is the major shortcoming of the film, given that its success would mean that the vampires would starve, something dealt with somewhat satisfactorily in a deleted scene.
Matt, I know you had some problems with the movie.
Matt: Yeah. Frost’s blood god plot makes no real sense, even in the world of the movie. However, unless you’re Bram Stoker, Richard Matheson or possibly Steve Niles (whose idea for 30 Days of Night, which is inspired by a Twilight Zone episode, actually makes a good deal of sense), then chances are your vampires’ grand plan will amount to a bunch of silliness.
My biggest problem with the vampires in this movie is the level of bureaucracy that exists. As Charles said, they buy politicians, own the police, and have a treaty with all other human higher-ups. Not only is this, well, silly, it also castrates the vampires so they’re less monsters or even gangsters and more like bankers out to commit tax evasion. The more you think about it the angrier you get at yourself for actually bothering. All of this is so Deacon Frost, the new kid on the block, can throw the old way of doing things out the window and into the faces of the elders.
Now I do relent that all of this is only set-up to show Deacon Frost is a bad ass with his own hotshot way of running things. And seeing Udo Kier again as a vampire might just make it worth it. However I do think it softens the threat that supposedly looms over the whole movie and it begs the question of why didn’t Deacon kill these wimps a long time ago?
Charles: I rather liked the portrayal of the mainstream, defanged vampires in that it kind of reinforces Blade as a stealth blaxsploitation movie. They don’t need to be savage monsters like Frost and his gang because they essentially run things – they are for lack of a better term, The Man. They’ve got the money, the power, and the rules on their side and for all his swagger and talk, Frost wants to be just like them (i.e. at the top of it all).
Outside of all this is Blade, belonging to neither world but protective of the underclass (humanity). His speech early in the movie to Karen where he warns her to wake up to the reality of the world wouldn’t be out of place in The Harder They Come. Later, just before the most over-the-top throwing of a child scene in movies, Frost calls Blade an Uncle Tom, attempting to unite their struggles against the vampire hierarchy while at the same time rejecting the idea that humanity is really worth saving.
Then Frost throws a little girl through a hot dog cart and I can’t stop laughing because I’m possibly a bad person.
Beyond that, the movie is also one of the few cool action movies featuring a black protagonist in recent years, not starring Denzel Washington. Think back on the last decade and name 10 big, cool action stories with black actors in the lead – you only get one space for Denzel. How about 5?
It’s actually just dawning on me now that this is one of the reasons the movie resonates so well with me. It featured a black male and female lead with a hip hop/techno soundtrack, martial arts, and comic book horror mythology and here’s the most important part: it never felt like it was attempting to condescend to the so-called “urban” audience which is really corporate speak for poor blacks in the inner city.
I call Blade a blaxsploitation movie, but that is somewhat inaccurate given the lack of sexual swagger or adherence to hood codes that define these movies. It’s kind of refreshing that the character is outside all of that and would sit uncomfortably next to The Mack (but he’d probably date Foxy Brown and maybe get a drink with Shaft). It’s cool to see people who look like you on the screen and it’s better still to see those same people outside the same boring boxes that movies cram them in over and over (i.e. the wisecracking sidekick or the magical negro).
Matt: I would say aside from the few sly references you mentioned above this movie is not really a blaxploitation film at all, even in a retro knowing way such as Jackie Brown. And that’s one thing that separates it from most Hollywood product labeled “urban,” a label I find disconcerting almost as much as the product. In a film where, for all intents and purposes, the hero COULD have been white if the producers had decided it would broaden their audience, it’s very refreshing to see two black leads who are neither gross stereotypes nor stripped of their power. Not only that, but like the movie itself which is a melding of different genres, Blade is not defined by his color. He is made up of different aspects from different cultures and mythologies which makes him what all memorable characters should be: dimensional.
You can find the trailer for the movie below: