With Black Panther tearing up the box office, we revisit Wesley Snipes’ debut as the Daywalker twenty years later.
Blade single-handedly rejuvenated the ailing comic book film in 1998. Many will say that it was Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) which made Marvel a box office sensation, but this R-rated Tomb of Dracula adaptation got there first. Director Stephen Norrington took a lower-tier character best known for his appearances in other hero’s stories and made him a household name. To get there, screenwriter David Goyer (Batman Begins) made a few drastic changes to the original vision by writer Marv Wolfman and penciller Gene Colan, who had created the character in 1973 as an ethnically-conscious take on Van Helsing. He was very much a supporting player and was best known to most “funny book” readers for his tussles with scientifically-created vampire Morbius. Had this film not been made, Blade might still be an obscure hero known only to the hearts of comic’s geekiest. How times change.
In the picture’s effective prologue (which firmly establishes a rarity in Marvel cinema, a horror-action hybrid), we see a pregnant woman admitted to hospital with a vampire bite. She dies but the paramedics are able to deliver her baby boy, who grows up to become the vengeful Blade (Wesley Snipes), a half-human/half-vampire vigilante who has all of their strengths and none of their weaknesses (a counterpoint to the original comic version, who merely had heightened senses and a resistance to vampirism). He sets his sights on blood-sucker Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), who plans to raise a vampire God and turn every living soul on Earth into one of the undead. With help from surly surrogate father Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade sets out to stop Frost and prove that “some motherfuckers are always trying to ice-skate uphill.”
Blade had me, like everyone else, with its very first action sequence. It opens the film with a bang and ensured that it would be a hit. Few comic book flicks since have doused the screen in gallons of blood, or uttered as many colourful expletives (save for the film’s own sequels and Deadpool, perhaps). Norrington, Goyer and Snipes (acting as a co-producer) give a preposterous story a sense of integrity by taking it as seriously as possible, but not in the post-2005 dour Christopher Nolan way. This is an absurd film at times, to be sure, but New Line Cinema believed in a grown-up approach to such cult material when few others would. It was the studio that rose to prominence with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Blade almost seems like the middle-man between their grindhouse past and the box office glory of The Lord of the Rings. It really is the first comic book film not to feature DC’s Batman or Superman to really succeed with audiences. Would the X-Men have escaped development hell without the Daywalker? This film is more important to the fabric of modern Hollywood than many realise.
It remains a fantastic action flick, too, but I’ll get some of my gripes out of the way now. First of all, the CGI effects definitely reflect their era. Blade dusts countless vamps in a visual swiped from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Marvel owe Joss Whedon a lot, it seems). The masterful Guillermo del Toro “perfected” such things in 2002’s Blade II, but that isn’t to say the VFX detract from my enjoyment of the original. It also has a highly-flawed final battle that could have been more satisfying, but that was largely down to production problems and the restrictive $45 million budget. There’s also the fact that our fanged antagonist goes out in daylight wearing sunblock and doesn’t burn to a crisp (seriously?!). And that’s about it. Blade is a very well-made film with killer pacing, solid performances and a surprisingly intricate script. There’s a lot more here than punch-ups and extravagant gore.
The key to a great comic-to-film adaptation is selling the viewer on the fantasy world presented, and Goyer came up with some fertile ideas. Vampires work in tandem with corrupt humans (known as “Familiars”), and they keep their position at the top of the food chain secret by convincing the everyday world that they don’t exist. It should be silly, but Norrington ensures that we go along with it due to the peerless craftsmaship on display. Theo Van De Sande’s cinematography is still mesmerising, giving the material boundless energy as well as providing a pretty backdrop for the furious set-pieces. Blade seems a lot costlier than it is, and a typically moody score by Mark Isham makes everything cooler by indulging in a variety of influences as far reaching as Danny Elfman and hip-hop. There’s a Blaxploitation swagger to the film that at least felt unique for 1998, and the pulp elements are played to their fullest.
Yet it isn’t all about style. Few are kind to the script’s characterisations, but I’ve always loved the dynamic between the heroes and villains here. Kristofferson has never been better in his crotchety old man routine, getting us to sympathise with the title character as well as himself. Whistler’s own family was killed by vampires, and he raised Blade to fight alongside him. We needed someone with a detailed history of the character due to the Daywalker being a tight-lipped sort who would rather polish his sword collection than wax nostalgic. You could say that Whistler’s primary function is to relay exposition, as well as creating the hero’s weapons, but we learn just enough about Blade to understand him. Too much backstory would have robbed the hero of his mystique. Snipes is convincingly cold and detached, only coming to life when turning vampires into mulch or staring into the eyes of Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright), a woman who owes him her life. Naturally, she helps to bring out Blade’s more human qualities. She also introduces a frustratingly sketchy sub-plot where she attempts to create a serum to keep his bloodthirst at bay. It serves to remind us that Blade could very well be the enemy if the right buttons are pushed.
As the scheming Frost, Dorff impresses as a villain you simultaneously root for and against. Those are always the best. His plan doesn’t make much sense (surely turning everyone into a vampire would diminish the food chain?), but he has such a ball being bad. Frost will dispose of anyone at a moment’s notice, and, crucially, he seems to be one step ahead of our hero at every turn. There’s also a fantastic mutual jealously between the hero and villain that gives the rivalry a real sting; Deacon wishes he could be like Blade and go out into the daylight, whereas our hero secretly admires Frost’s freedom from morality. Such a dichotomy makes the action thrilling because we feel like something is at stake.
If spectacle is what you want, the film more than delivers. The fight choreography packs a visceral punch, and Norrington incorporates everything from gun battles to a duel with samurai swords. It doesn’t look like the work of a second-time director, since the set-pieces trounce many similar films for their creativity and verve. They’re also practical for the most part, utilising Snipes’ black belt in martial arts to convince the audience that these incredible feats are possible. As a balls-out action flick, the first in the trilogy just fucking rocks.
Twenty years later, Blade is somewhat of a modern gem in the comic book movie genre. Adult entries in this increasingly large enterprise are still novelties, and it certainly fits the bill as undemanding entertainment that is pulled off superbly with a pleasing lack of pretension. You can switch your brain off while watching it, but your intelligence will never be insulted. Blade made the notion of a live-action Marvel comic commercially successfully, gave new life to a character many had never heard of, and influenced countless filmmakers to come since. Simply put, it is a unheralded classic that deserves more respect than it receives.
- LL Cool J was originally considered for the part of Blade.
- The true name of the Blade character is Eric Brooke. (“Eric” is mentioned once in the film, and Blade’s mother’s driver’s license says Vanessa Brooks of Bradenton, Florida).
- Kris Kristofferson’s character Whistler was created for Blade’s cameo on the Spider-Man cartoon show. He was liked so much by Marvel CEOs that he was adopted into the Marvel universe.
- When the film was first being developed, David Fincher was supposed to direct. He later dropped out to pursue other projects.
- A great many handheld shots were accomplished with a special anamorphic-lens camera that also had single-unit sound – the only one of its kind in the world.
- In the scene where Blade is chased to the subway, and the subway train is passing by, all the passengers are cardboard cutouts with the special FX man among them.
- Stan Lee originally had a cameo that was ultimately cut from the film. He played one of the cops that come in to the blood club during the aftermath and discover Quinn’s body on fire.