by Jarrod Jones. This is RETROGRADING, where some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill.
THE FILM: Blade
THE YEAR: 1998, two years before X-Men kickstarted the superhero movie renaissance and one year after the Batman franchise had just imploded itself.
RECOLLECTIONS: Blade was one of those movies that seemed designed to fail. A live-screen adaptation of an obscure comic book property featuring a leading man audiences still hadn’t decided whether they liked better as a bleached-out supervillain or a bonafide, hitting-his-prime action star. Wesley Snipes, of course, had long been a charismatic fixture in the combat pits of Hollywood martial artistry, but to star in an R-rated Marvel Comics movie? In 1998? Who in their right mind would want to gamble on that movie?
Believe it or not, Snipes was 100% on board, and so was David S. Goyer. There was a time when the garishly tattooed screenwriter, behind such blasphemous comic book larks as Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice, was once widely considered the champion of comics-to-cinema adaptation. When New Line Cinema seriously considered making a vampire movie spoof featuring one of the House of Ideas’ few iconic black superheroes, it was Goyer who convinced top brass that a straight-faced, high-octane action splatterer was the only way to go.
(Don’t judge Nineties-era studio thinking too harshly; up to that point, there had been only four other films based on Marvel Comics properties—The Punisher, Howard the Duck, Captain America, and Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four—and only one of them had ever seen a theatrical release. Go ahead. Guess which one.)
It’s a horror movie, a superhero movie, The Matrix before there was The Matrix. But it wasn’t just ahead of its time in aesthetics; Blade‘s “I am not fucking with you” approach to adapting a comic book character to the big screen was just as effective as Tim Burton’s Batman. It wasn’t hamstrung by fifty-plus years of pop culture baggage at the time—aside from the few classic horror tropes it chose to bring with it—went a long way to getting its high concepts across to a general audience who were still suffering the diminished star power of the Schwarzeneggers and Stallones of the world. Like those Commandos and Cobras of the past, Blade embraced the outright silliness at play.
Its rules weren’t so strong that you couldn’t start poking holes into its logic at almost every corner (the “vampires use sunblock” conceit is just funny to me now). But Blade was so good at convincing the viewer that its world was built on a solid foundation that you were only too happy to forgive it when it stumbled. Blade remains so good that it’s pretty simple to ignore the mountains of contrivance you would have to climb if you bothered to think about it.
It’s a peculiar thing to consider: Had Guillermo del Toro not come along to make a sequel to this neo-gothic thriller, we might have been spared the utterly disappointing Blade: Trinity (a film masterminded and helmed by Goyer himself). Had Blade been left on its own, perhaps we might still be enjoying first-rate superhero movies with a leading character of color. By today’s standards—even though Marvel and DC Comics are slowly working towards making it right—the cultural acceptance of Blade‘s strong black representation appears downright enlightened by comparison. (Its Japanese representation, er… not so much.)
THE DIRECTOR: Stephen Norrington had already amassed a pretty impressive resume when New Line Cinema tapped him to direct Blade. (He’d worked as a special effects artist on films like Aliens and Split Second, among others.) By the time he had reached his thirtieth birthday, Norrington was planting his freak flag by taking a chance on a feature-length debut, a William Gibson-esque techno-thriller called Death Machine starring Brad Dourif. An unabashed genre nerd, Norrington’s screenplay featured characters with names cribbed from what had to be an All-Time Favorite Filmmakers list—characters named John Carpenter, Scott Ridley and Raimi are found among Death Machine‘s cast. It’s apparent that those filmmakers, Ridley Scott especially, was Norrington’s inspiration during the shooting of Blade.
If the derivative look and feel of Death Machine had been a by-product of a post-T2 cinematic wasteland, the aesthetic of Blade was decidedly Norrington’s own. Udo Kier’s death-by-sunrise sequence had the appeal of an Aphex Twin video and, compounded by Stephen Dorff and Arly Jover’s sensual application of sunscreen just seconds before, a terrifyingly chic cosmetics commercial. Then there was the leather, the muscle cars, the sunglasses, the raves. If the Wachowskis didn’t borrow aesthetic cues from Norrington’s Blade with The Matrix, they were definitely haunting the same nightclubs.
THE CAST: Blade‘s straight-faced Hammer Horror antics were lovingly amplified by its cast’s totally game performances. Kris Kristofferson’s hard-drinkin’, chainsmoking Whistler was Alfred to Snipes’ Dark Knight, a wily performance that nearly threatened to take the piss right out of Snipes’ tough-ass schtick. There are moments of true camaraderie between Kristofferson and Snipes—they grip each other’s hands during Blade’s inoculation scene, and they bicker over the wisdom of bringing a heavy tool out into the field—which gives the shocking, last-minutes-of-Act-II twist that takes Whistler out of the game entirely an added emotional punch. (Until Guillermo del Toro’s just-okay Blade II retconned the character back to health.)
N’Bushe Wright is conspicuously chill as Dr. Karen Jensen, a handily-placed hematologist who takes more pleasure in hurting vampires than screeching in terror over them. (She shrugs after flash-frying a rather mouthy vamp: “He moved.”) If Wright is visibly unmoved by all the wanton bloodletting at play in this movie, she’s even more unimpressed by the phony club-kid sexuality of Stephen Dorff’s Deacon Frost. (“You’re just infected, a virus, a sexually transmitted disease.”) You never really fear for Karen’s life in Blade, primarily because—when Snipes doesn’t pop out of the woodwork at the most convenient of moments—N’Bushe Wright handles herself just fine, thank you very much.
It’s Wesley Snipes you have to worry about in Blade. As the eponymous Daywalker, Snipes is consistently asked to dial back his fists of fury; his ability to clear an entire room of super-powerful vampires, established in the film’s first ferocious few moments, would otherwise undermine the movie’s stakes. If Snipes were allowed to carry on as he did in the film’s stirring opening club sequence, there’d be no movie. Stephen Dorff’s diminutive supervillain wouldn’t have stood a chance had the movie not tossed him several handicaps by the time the film’s climax rolled around. As Deacon Frost, Dorff was presented as the hipper-than-thou antagonist to Blade’s earnest vampire hunter. But anyone would seem formidable if they were imbued with the powers of an ancient vampire god, their only opponent drugged out of their gourd.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE: Stephen Norrington’s Blade is one of the most muscular comic-to-film adaptations this side of The Dark Knight. (For better or worse, a movie co-written by David Goyer.) It’s undoubtedly an artifact of its time (Deacon Frost translates an ancient vampire text using an Apple Powerbook G3, for example). Still, Wesley Snipes was probably never as ferocious as he was here. To this day, few superhero movies bother to be as daring.
RETROGRADE: 8.5 out of 10