If you’ve set foot in a movie theater within the last few years, you know that superhero movies are bigger than ever right now, and vampire flicks aren’t doing too shabby either. Like its own title character, “Blade” takes the best elements of both and creates a hybrid that is truly a force to be reckoned with. It’s all the more impressive when one looks back on the period that “Blade” was released during the precarious, almost terminal position that the superhero genre was in at the time.
Wesley Snipes steps into his signature role as the dark and brooding vampire hunter, Blade. With a combination of unbreakable stoicism and powerful martial arts skills that at the time had never been seen in a superhero film before, Snipes truly makes the role his own. Kris Kristofferson portrays Blade’s grizzled but caring mentor and ally Abraham Whistler, while N’Bushe Wright plays Dr. Karen Jenson, an emergency room physician who finds herself pulled into the hidden world of vampires. Stephen Dorff gives a supervillain performance for the ages as Blade’s arch-nemesis, the malevolent Deacon Frost, with Donal Logue by his side as Frost’s right-hand man Quinn, and Sanaa Lathan rounding out the cast in the role of Blade’s mother, Vanessa Brooks.
It’s just a normal evening for emergency room physician Dr. Karen Jenson until a mysterious man named Blade rescues her from a reanimated corpse that bites her on the neck. Back at his hideout, Blade and his associate Abraham Whistler reveal that they are hunters of the hominus nocturna, better known as vampires.
Karen also learns the truth about Blade that his mother had been attacked by a vampire shortly before giving birth. Blade ultimately inherits the superhuman strength, speed, and accelerated healing native to vampires while remaining immune to their weaknesses to garlic, silver, and sunlight, earning him the moniker of “The Daywalker” in the vampire world. Unfortunately, Blade also inherited the vampire thirst for human blood, and though he suppresses the thirst with a serum, it gradually begins to lose its effectiveness.
As Karen searches for a cure for vampirism before she turns herself, Blade’s arch-nemesis Deacon Frost hatches a plot to awaken the vampire blood god, La Magra, and unleash a vampire apocalypse upon the world.
When “Blade” was first released in 1998, it was more than just a gamble – it was practically a suicide mission. Superhero movies were very much an endangered species at this time, with the original Superman series having fizzled out and the Batman franchise pulling a Hindenburg with its fourth installment in 1997 (to say nothing of such cinematic blunders as “Supergirl” and “Steel”).
With this measure of success under the belt of DC Comics, Marvel had managed to get adaptations of Howard the Duck, The Punisher, Captain America, and the Fantastic Four made, only to see all of them flounder. Marvel’s next stab at making it on the big screen had not only their own cinematic future on the line, but indeed that of the entire superhero genre, so who would they ultimately choose to pull out of their character roster for what could very well be their last ditch effort? Marvel’s flagship character, The Amazing Spider-Man? The Uncanny X-Men, which could cash in on the popularity of the 90’s animated series? The Incredible Hulk, which could play off the acclaim of the live-action television show from the 70’s, Marvel’s only notable success to that point? None of the above. Instead, it would be Marvel’s resident vampire hunter…Blade.
Blade, a second-tier character almost completely unknown to anyone outside of hardcore comic book fans or those who caught his appearance in a handful of the Spider-Man animated series episodes. And, just to raise the stakes even higher, the film’s prospects for box office success would be further restricted by copious F-bombs and enough blood to fill your average public swimming pool. We may look back on “Blade” today as among the best comic book adaptations yet, nearly two decades after the fact but in 1998, it was as much of a surprise as being bitten by a real vampire would be!
David S. Goyer’s superb script certainly has something to do with that, in the way it crafts its hero who most audiences were largely unfamiliar with, and re-imagines the concept of vampirism into something more akin to a disease. However, “Blade” matches its strong writing with equally strong action. The fight sequences in “Blade” are the best of their time in superhero movies by an enormous margin, and indeed, they even put the action in some superhero movies today to shame.
Having a consummate martial artist like Wesley Snipes as the title character is a major asset in that regard, but putting him in a suit that doesn’t restrict his mobility is even better. It would almost be cruel to do a direct comparison to the original four Batman films, with the famously cumbersome suit that the wearer couldn’t so much as turn his head in. “Blade” leaves those in the dust from even the opening sequence in a vampire rave, where he kicks, spins, and slices through his foes in a fight fest that, like the rest of the film, has aged extremely well. Alright, the effects of vampires disintegrating are a rather dated, and it’s not hard to guess whenever blood is created through CGI, but those are nitpicks at best when almost everything else about the film works to near-perfection.
Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff each give the performance of a lifetime in their roles. Snipes makes Blade an introverted man of few words, while Dorff is the cocky and animated evildoer who simply relishes the opportunity to take the hero down, and it’s certainly the opportunity he’s dreamed of by the time the finale arrives. With Frost’s plot to awaken La Magra underway in an ancient vampire temple, Blade wages a one-man war on Frost’s army of vampire underlings (see if you can spot Simon Rhee in there!) leading to the battle for the fate of the world with the man at the top.
As both the finale to a martial arts film with clear Hong Kong influences, or the most amazing superhero showdown of its time, the ending battle of “Blade” assuredly stands the test of time and should serve as a template for how to properly close out a comic book movie.
If 2000’s “X-Men” was the film that truly revived the superhero genre, “Blade” was the one to keep it on life support long enough to make a comeback. Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, and Kris Kristofferson all give performances that rank among their very best, and the film single-handedly sets a standard for action in superhero movies that remains a model for how to do it right. The film accomplishes all of this while facing such a suicidal uphill battle to success – how fitting then that Blade should quip about ice-skating uphill!
- In addition to writing the “Blade” films, David S. Goyer also co-wrote “The Dark Knight” trilogy, “Man of Steel” and the upcoming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”.
- Jet Li turned down the role of Deacon Frost to play Wah Sing-ku in “Lethal Weapon 4”.
- The original ending of the film, available on DVD, involved Frost actually transforming into a massive blood beast after becoming one with La Magra. It was later changed to the ending seen in the film because the visual effects were difficult to make look right, and because test audiences wanted to actually see Frost in the finale.
- The film’s portrayal of Blade and Deacon Frost diverged heavily from their depictions in the comics. In the film, Frost is at least twenty years younger than he originally was in the comics. Also, Blade originally possessed no vampire powers but was simply immune to vampire bites. Following the success of the film, Blade was modified in the comics to match his portrayal in the movies.