BLADE (1998)
Director: Stephen Norrington

Comic books are a medium primarily dominated by superheroes. Anyone why tries telling you otherwise is either a fool or a liar. But while the majority of them wear spandex costumes and have fantastic powers like flight or super-strength, others deviate greatly from that mold. They might be called "superheroes," but the supernatural nature of both their origins and the enemies they face are what sets them apart from their caped brethren. Perhaps the most notable of these heroes is Blade, the resident vampire hunter at Marvel Comics. Created in 1973 by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, Blade was a frequent supporting character in Tomb of Dracula, while making semi-occasional appearances in Marvel's horror comics at the time. His visibility dropped during the '80s after Tomb of Dracula was cancelled, but he regained into his share of the spotlight through a number of miniseries and one-shot comics published in the early '90s. Blade has never been one of Marvel's A-list characters (or even one of their B-list characters, if you want my opinion on it), but that didn't stop New Line Cinema from purchasing the movie rights. And let me tell you, folks, if you want to know what got the ball started on the current superhero genre, you can point the finger directly at this movie.

BLADE (1998)We begin with a brief prologue in 1967. A pregnant woman (Sanaa Lathan) is rushed into a hospital's emergency room, hemorrhaging blood after being bitten by a vampire. The trauma ends up inducing labor, and she dies giving birth. Thirty years pass, and that baby has become a prolific vampire hunter known as Blade (Wesley Snipes). Thanks to a genetic alteration passed to him by the bite that killed his mother, Blade is known amongst the vampire underworld as "the Daywalker," a vampire/human hybrid with all of a vampire's strengths and only one of their weaknesses: the thirst for blood. Keeping the thirst at bay with a serum developed by his cantankerous weaponsmith and mentor, Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade has made it his life's work to destroy every bloodsucker he comes across.

While tracking a vampire one night, Blade crosses paths with Dr. Karen Jenson (N'Bushe Wright), a hematologist whom the vampire had bitten. He brings the injured doctor back to his lair and patches her up, but can ultimately do nothing to prevent Dr. Jenson from eventually becoming a vampire herself. Not willing to resign herself to that fate, she begins working on a cure. Her work leads her to discover an anticoagulant that causes a violently fatal allergic reaction in vampires. So violently fatal, in fact, that it makes them explode. Blade arms himself with darts filled with this anticoagulant to use as weapons, and he's going to need them. A brash, impudent vampire named Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) has grown tired of living in the shadows, believing that vampires should rise up and enslave humanity. And to achieve this lofty goal, Frost seeks to instigate his answer to the apocalypse. To do so, he plans on harnessing the power of an ancient god known "La Magra" so that he might wipe humanity off the face of the planet.

Prior to Blade, movies based on Marvel Comics properties weren't really all that great. Those that had seen production were awful beyond words. We'd seen Captain America with rubber ears, Johnny Storm depicted as cheesy animation, Lea Thompson making out with Howard the Duck, and David Hasselhoff in an eye patch. Dolph Lundgren's Punisher movie was the only one out of the bunch that was halfway watchable, and even that was no great shakes. Even DC's movies were struggling at the time, thanks to the one-two punch of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. But when Blade came along, that all changed. Sure, the first X-Men movie may get all the glory, but Blade was definitely the catalyst for the superhero movie genre as we know it today. The movie isn't a perfect one, but it's definitely a solid venture that's exciting and entertaining, which is exactly what it needs to be.

Let's hit up the direction first. Stephen Norrington hasn't had what you'd call a prolific career as a director, but he sure gives the impression of someone who knows exactly what kind of movie he wants to make. His work is slick and stylish, coming just a year before the Matrix trilogy turned the idea of fast-paced fight scenes pitting guys in sunglasses and trenchcoats against a big group of people into a cliché. Norrington (and his cinematographer, Theo Van De Sande) use long tracking shots, odd angles, and quick editing to help establish the tone of the movie, while utilizing shadows and a pale blue-gray color palate to enhance the atmosphere in many scenes. The enhancement of the atmosphere is also helped by the fine score composed by Mark Isham. I've made note in numerous reviews of my firm belief that, if used properly, music can go a long way in helping a movie in telling its story. Isham's music accomplishes that, helping to create an auditory experience that is equal to the visual one. Even the techno music used on the soundtrack works well too, but after a while, it kinda started to give me a headache.

But not everything about the production is aces. My main gripe is with the downright ugly CGI. Now I'll admit that for the majority of the movie, the CGI is relatively solid. But during the climactic final battle between Blade and Deacon Frost, there's two instances where it's so awful that it brings down the quality of the rest of the movie. It doesn't even look fake. It looks worse than fake. It looks... cheap. You know how a lot of supermarkets will sell crappy imitation versions of name-brand cereals? The CGI in that fight scene is the cinematic equivalent of those imitation cereals. Yeah, it might get the job done in a pinch, but it just doesn't have the same quality as the better stuff. The CGI looks half-finished, like they stopped working on it at some arbitrary point during the process. To sum it all up with another metaphor, the digital effects team could have used Photoshop and went with Microsoft Paint instead.

Next up is the screenplay, written by David S. Goyer. One of several superhero movies written by Goyer over the years, Blade doesn't really need much of a story. And truth be told, it doesn't really have much of one, either. The movie and its sequels are defined by their action sequences, not their writing. But that doesn't stop Goyer from doing as fine a job as he can here. Yeah, we do end up with some corny dialogue and a couple of characters who could have been removed with no major effect on the movie as a whole, but his writing didn't completely suck. And I have to credit him with giving us a style of vampire that I personally hadn't seen before. The vampires of Blade are almost like the Mafia, an underground society making back-alley deals and getting involved with things like politics and law enforcement, all to further their grip on society. And there's also the familiars, humans loyal to vampires and marked with tattoos as if they were branded cattle. It's definitely a take on vampires that you don't see everyday.

Finally, there's Blade's cast. You really can't talk about the cast in any of the Blade movies without first talking about the franchise's leading man, Wesley Snipes. Snipes plays Blade with a certain macho ambiguity that makes blade an intriguing character to follow. His performance gives off the impression that Blade's outward appearance of a hardcore vampire killer is a cover for a deeper conflict within him. It makes it a little hard to connect with him since he isn't laying all his cards on the table, but Snipes's performance makes it easy to cheer for him when he's kicking all that vampire butt. It's also easy to like Kris Kristofferson as Whistler, Blade's gruff, grizzled sidekick. Kristofferson is a lot of fun in the role, and he practically steals every scene he's in. Stephen Dorff, meanwhile, is watchable and suitably over the top in his role. Unfortunately, thanks to how the character of Deacon Frost is written, Dorff comes off not as an intimidating, ferocious villain, but as impetuous young punk trying to steal a little glory for himself. It isn't all Dorff's fault, though, and his work is acceptable in my eyes.

The fourth member of the leading cast, N'Bushe Wright, is... well... she's not all that great. Matter of fact, she's pretty darn bad. The character of Karen Jenson serves its purpose within two or three scenes, yet continues to stick around for the rest of the movie without any reason to do so. Yeah, sure, she's there so the necessary exposition could be explained to the audience, but I'm sure that it could have been handled in such a way that would have made it feel more organic. And it doesn't help that Wright has all the charisma of a wet mop, not to mention that her performance is so wooden, you'd think that they'd hired a tree to play the role. The more she was onscreen, the more I wanted a vampire to show up and tear her head off.

There is no deeper meaning to Blade. It doesn't have any sort of hidden social commentary or message. It doesn't elevate the cinematic discourse. But Blade is appealing because sometimes, you just want to see a movie where a character beats the everloving crap out of as many people as he possibly can between the opening and closing credits. It works on a visceral level, and in spite of its flaws, the whole thing gels together to make a thoroughly energetic, entertaining experience. It is a movie that not everyone will find themselves liking, but those there do will have enjoyed themselves by the end of it. So I'm going to give Blade three and a half stars and a thumbs up.

Final Rating: ***½