Stalking the Night Once Again
A Look Back at the Blade Trilogy
I have been on something of a superhero kick as of late. That is, in large part, due to the fact that most of my movie collection is packed up (due to home renovations) so I've mostly been relegated to watching whats on the streaming services and, wouldn't you know it, HBO Max has a lot of superhero films (since they have the whole DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s. back-catalog). Now Blade isn't DC; he's Marvel through and through, but if there's anything I dig more than superheroes its vampires and the Blade series combined those two together in a convenient trilogy (plus a TV series no one seems to like outside of me). New Line made the Blade films, WB owns New Line, and all those films ended up HBO Max. It was a big win for me.
With Marvel looking at bringing a new version of Blade into the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (as the rights reverted to Marvel a few years back), it seemed like a good time to go through and watch the series (again). I've always enjoyed these films and I will take any excuse I can get to go back and have some bloody fun with the vampire hunter.
Digging in to the films this time around, I did something I hadn't done before: watch them all back to back. Let me tell you, watching them all like this the flaws in the later films really do stand out. The first film is honestly the best with a clear, Blaxploitation-influenced vision and a dark, gritty aesthetic that suits the character really well. This film has the best grasp of the world, a land of humans and vampires with one "half-breed" in the middle killing fangers to even things out and save humanity. It's a solid film that, all these years later (23, looking at the date), holds up really well.
What works best is Wesley Snipes. In this first outing as the vampire hunter Snipes just oozes cool. He takes the role of the stoic and tough vampire hunter and really embodies him. He plays the character just right, with a lot of anger and darkness beneath the surface but still with the ability to turn a one-liner and make it work. This is Blade's film and while there are other decent actors in this film, from Kris Kristofferson's support/father figure Abraham Whistler to Stephen Dorff's evil vampire heavy Deacon Frost, Snipes is in control of this film through and through.
Snipes also carries the action. Trained in a couple of different martial arts, Snipes had a string of action films leading up to Blade and that action training really paid off for this film in particular. The film doesn't often have to use CGI or trickery when it came to Blade and the action is not only competent but a lot of fun to watch. This film didn't really sell itself as a "superhero" film so much as a vampire action movie, and that's fair; Blade might have had ties to the larger Marvel Comics universe but those weren't played up here (due to license rights), allowing the film to dodge the stigma of "superhero" film which, up until X-MenLaunched in 1963 and written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men featured heroes distinctly different from those featured in the pages of DC Comics. Mutants who didn't ask for their powers (and very often didn't want them), these heroes, who constantly fought against humans who didn't want "muties" around, served as metaphors for oppression and racism. Their powerful stories would form this group into one of the most recognizable superhero teams in comics (and a successful series of movies as well). two years later was not something most studios (outside of the WB) wanted anything to do with.
But then, considering his comic book roots, Blade did help to allay that stigma some. In fact, it's fair to say that the superhero boom that was to start up in 2000 really started back here, with this grungy little vampire action film starring a 1990s action star in his prime. Sadly one of the things it really highlighted was just how hard it was to make a competent sequel to a superhero film, as 2002's Blade II more than illustrated.
There are a number of issues with Blade II, but chief among them is the fact that it doesn't really feel like it has any stakes. The movie is focused on a new threat, a mutated vampire (with a barbed stinger-tongue that it feeds from and a jaw that splits open) that likes to feed on other vampires. As Blade says in the film to the vampires, "that feels like your problem," and that's true. All the talk of "this is a threat that will affect humanity, too" is the kind of talk that feels too broad, too hard to grasp. Vampires feeding on vampires feels beneath Blade; let them battle it out and then Blade will clean up after.
Another problem is that the film doesn't invest in its characters. The original films spent a lot of time setting up Blade, Whistler, and even the vampires they fought all so that they all felt like fleshed out characters. This film, despite having solid characters actors like Ron Perlman, Norman Reedus, Matt Schulze, and Donny Yen, doesn't really do much with any of them. It's a very generic cast of characters all of which, you just know, are primed to die by movie's end so why bother caring about any of them.
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro, this second film does have very interesting vampire designs. Viewed with hindsight, though, this feels more like a pilot for the eventual TV series he would create (and novels that project was based on): The Strain (which we've touched on before). Del Toro has really great design and ideas, and I like seeing the things he comes up with. They just didn't really come together here, sadly.
Worse, the action just isn't as good this time around. There's a lot more CGI standing in for actual fights, a lot of bad editing and cut-aways that obscure the best action. Nothing has the weight and impact here that it did in the first installment, sucking (no pun intended) a lot of the fun out of the proceedings. It's a perfectly okay film but nowhere near as good as what came before. It was a hit at the time, though, so almost immediately the studio went to work on the third film in the series: Blade Trinity.
Let's be clear: this is an awful Blade film but it's actually not a bad vampire action movie. The film finds Blade going up against a team of vampires, led by Danica Talos (Parker Posey) as they try to frame him for the death of a human (which isn't really a frame job since he absolutely kills the human, a familiar working with the vampires). This, for some reason, puts the FBI hot on Blade's heels and leads to a massive shoot out at his hideout that see Whistler die. But Whistler's daughter, Abigail (Jessica Biel), former vampire Hannibal King (Ryan Reynolds), and their crew of vampire hunters break Blade and and help him in getting revenge. There's just one twist: the vampires woke up the original vampire, Drake aka Dracula (played by Dominic Purcell), and that just ratchets up the danger the whole team is in.
Famously Wesley Snipes wanted as little to do with the production of this movie as he could get. He was annoyed at the script and the director, David S. Goyer, so he mostly hid him his trailer and did the bare minimum of coverage shots. Snipe's disengagement led to a movie that really didn't care much about Blade (despite it being his movie), with much more focus (and all the one-liners) going to Hannibal King. Of course, Ryan Reynolds is going to do what he does and this performance was basically just a dry-run of what he would eventually do over in Deadpool. Tonally it doesn't fit with the movies we had before in this series but on its own it does make for a very watchable film.
I was initially annoyed at the portrayal of Dracula in this film -- he's really not Dracula and if you're going to use that bat-head I felt like you should do it right. But, considering that Blade got his start in the Tomb of Dracula series, Dracula appearing in what would be the final film of the Snipes Blade series does feel rather fitting.
So yeah, the films are uneven but still all watchable. The problem with watching all three of them back-to-back-to-back, aside from seeing the quality of the films quickly degrade, is that there are continuity issues prevalent that wouldn't be noticeable if you spaced them out. For one, in the original film the vampires figure out that they can go out in daylight with sunscreen. Sure, those vampires all died but are you really telling us that none of the other vampires could figure that out? Certainly they never bother with it despite it being in every corner drug store, and most of those are out 24/7. That was a pretty obvious case of the writers forgetting a major plot point from the original film.
But there's also the fact that the FBI suddenly care about Blade in the third film. He'd done a lot of damage in that first movie, and was even chased by the police more than once. Considering he's had an international career of vampire hunting one would think either he'd always be pursued by the police and Interpol, or they just wouldn't be a factor. The plot really didn't need the cops (and, in fact, the movie largely forgets about them after the first act) so the inclusion of this detail, considering what all came before, is just silly.
My recommendation would be to just enjoy the films for what they are but don't run them as a full series. Take some time in between, maybe enjoy some other superhero (or vampire) films in between, and then come back to watch Blade take on more vampires in one sequel or another. Just, if you're going to watch any one film, maybe skip Blade II as it's easily the weakest of the set.
As for the television series... well, that's an acquired taste, to be sure.