Before there was such a thing as Marvel Comics movies, there was BLADE.
Technically it wasn’t the first Marvel movie. It was the fourth. But nobody would’ve expected Marvel Comics to take over the movie business the way they have now. There had been the infamous flop HOWARD THE DUCK in 1986, and a few low rent b-action movies: THE PUNISHER starring Dolph Lundgren in 1989, then Albert Pyun’s DTV movie of CAPTAIN AMERICA in 1990. A Roger Corman production of FANTASTIC FOUR had been made in 1994 merely to extend the movie rights to the characters; it was never released, and the negatives have since been destroyed. I still kinda like THE PUNISHER, but until BLADE came along in 1998 none of these really connected with audiences, and there was no reason to think they would. James Cameron and Golan & Globus had an equal amount of success in trying to make a Spider-man movie, and Marvel had gone bankrupt.
Let’s be honest, most of us never heard of a Blade before the movie. He came from the ’70s series Tomb of Dracula, part of a team of Dracula-hunters made up of descendants of Mina Harker, Abraham Van Helsing and Dracula himself. He wore a red leather jacket and green pants and spoke what creator Marv Wolfman later admitted was “cliche ‘Marvel Black’ dialogue.” But screenwriter David S. Goyer was a fan of the character when New Line Cinema, inspired by the success of FRIDAY, wanted to do a black super hero movie.
At the time it was easier to compare to other vampire movies. Anne Rice style romantic bloodsuckers had dominated the image of the subgenre since at least the movie version of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE in 1994, and BLADE was part of a pushback that included FROM DUSK TILL DAWN two years before and John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES two months after, all reminding audiences how much fun these creatures could be as vicious monsters that need to be exterminated. Each has their own version of the rules and their own leather-clad hunters with weapons made from silver, garlic, holy water or wood, but only BLADE (and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then two seasons in) treated it as an opportunity for martial arts.
That’s one reason Wesley Snipes was uniquely qualified for the role. Goyer originally wrote it for LL Cool J. When the script turned out to be more expensive than planned they figured only Laurence Fishburne, Snipes or Denzel Washington could justify the budget. Denzel never responded, but Wesley did.
I like all of those other actors but I can’t imagine any of them would’ve made a movie this great, because none of them are black belts. Snipes was a legitimate dramatic actor who had been in the Broadway play Execution of Justice (about the assassination of Harvey Milk), been a leading man for Spike Lee and won best actor at the Venice Film Festival for ONE NIGHT STAND. But between PASSENGER 57, DROP ZONE, DEMOLITION MAN, MONEY TRAIN and U.S. MARSHALS it was also safe to call him an action star. He brought along his skills in Shotokan karate, Hapkido, Capoeira, kung fu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, allowing for exciting fight scenes with a wide variety of finishing moves for the dozens of vampires he turns to bones and ashes.
I don’t think Snipes gets enough credit for one of the best ever acting performances as a super hero. Through careful movements and poses, but with subdued emotions and relatively little dialogue, he creates an iconic, larger than life figure like no other on screen. With the swagger of John Shaft and the grim demeanor of a bodyguard he can be fun without cracking jokes. He’ll slink down from above like a ninja, flap his leather duster behind him like a cape, spin and sheathe his sword to punctuate a good line, and occasionally flash a toothy smile just to fuck with his enemies.
Blade is in his own bubble enough to pull a machine gun on a crowded sidewalk. When cops have the nerve to shoot at him he asks “Motherfucker are you out of your damn mind?!” Traditionally that’s the question asked of the guy walking around in broad daylight with a sword on his back, not by him.
One thing I think is really special about Snipes as Blade is his posing. I can’t think of an actor whose ever approached his level of standing, leaning, cocking his head, turning, crouching or swinging a sword like he would if he was a drawing. It’s as if every time he stops moving he’s already consulted a cover artist about the coolest looking way to do it.
There have been many great actors who have played super heroes, and usually they try to bring humanity and a little naturalism to fill out the cartoon drawings. Batman or Iron Man might do a cool pose while in costume, but they usually have the masks off and then the filmmakers want us to learn about their psychology, what they’re going through. Not Blade. He doesn’t have the luxury of out-of-mask time. The closest he comes to talking about his feelings is to admit that he and his father figure Whistler (Kris Kristofferson, FIRE DOWN BELOW) “have a good arrangement.” (And then, “He makes the weapons. I use ’em.”) His most emotionally vulnerable moment is conveyed to us not through words or expressions, but through editing. A flash of Blade’s birth while he’s rescuing hematologist Karen (N’Bushe Wright, DEAD PRESIDENTS) from a vampire bite tells us that she reminds him of his mother. Minimal dialogue with Whistler tells us that keeping her alive is a violation of his usual rules. But they don’t waste time arguing about it.
I like these sort of extreme characters who you automatically like, and then they proceed to not behave like you’re supposed to. For example, Blade lets Karen go, then suddenly shows up in her apartment when she’s being attacked, and it pisses her off because she realizes he was using her as bait. “Get over it,” he says. He has all of humans’ strengths, none of their etiquette.
With Karen comes the possibility of a cure. This is scary to Blade because clearly he’s become entrenched in his ways here. “This ain’t exactly the March of Dimes,” but he has a tried and true method of following vampire migration patterns, knowing how to track them to their safe houses, even smell them, and read their glyphs. He has his headquarters, his vehicles (a motorcycle and a badass matte black 1968 Dodge Charger), his mentor/weapon maker, his ever-evolving weaponry, his techniques of keeping his vampirism in check (including a friend in an herb shop who gets him his garlic and gives him a pound and a hug – I always wonder what that dude’s story is. Underrated character.). That’s another reason this stands out from super hero movies: he already has everything going from the beginning. It’s not how he got started. It’s how he might finish.
This is a strong argument for skipping origin stories. The fun is in working backwards, piecing together who the hell this guy is, what kind of operation he has going. Blade is one of the most obscure comic book characters to ever get his own movie, so some would believe you’d have to show his beginnings. Fuck that. He has one of my favorite character introductions ever in a movie because he’s fully formed. He’s already a legend. You see it not only on the terrified faces of the vampires when they first see him, but in his attitude. He has nothing to prove. Just look at him!
Sam Raimi (after THE QUICK AND THE DEAD I guess?) and David Fincher (after doing SEVEN but before it was released) were among the directors attached to the movie at various points, but Stephen Norrington got the job on the basis of stretching his budget on DEATH MACHINE. Norrington (whose filmography has been tragically short following the disaster of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN) gives us an electronic dance music Marvel Comics vampire martial arts movie of surprising taste and tonal precision. Mark Isham’s ominous score bleeds in under red New Line Cinema logo, red on black credits, grainy flashes of Blade’s bloody, traumatic birth to a bitten mother (Sanaa Lathan, DRIVE [the Mark Dacascos one]), and then time lapse photography looking down on a city moving from day into night. This evil take on KOYAANISQATSI might look like music video style-for-style’s-sake, but consider that it reflects an ageless vampire’s perspective of time and of puny human cogs wasting away their days doing busy work.
In classic vampire movie tradition the story begins with a vampire (Traci Lords, INTENT TO KILL) pretending to be a regular human, luring a horny dude (Kenneth Johnson, Sons of Anarchy) to be bitten. These vampires have the gall to throw a rave with human blood spraying from the ceiling sprinklers (a huge one-upping of Carrie’s prom) with this poor chump being the one human in attendance. (Surprise!) But just as they’ve revealed themselves, surrounded him, hissed at him, knocked him to the ground and beaten him he crawls and slithers across the floor, through mobs of dancers covered head to toe in blood, and at the edge of the dance floor he reaches his hand out to a clean black boot.
And we know that’s him. The boogie man. The I Am Legend. After showing his feet, we get a pan up just from his chest to his neck, and still no face until the gooey mob of vamps whisper in shock, “Is it him?” and “It’s him” and “It’s the Daywalker.” The DJ has stopped the music. Quinn (Donal Logue, METRO) has interrupted his combination makeout/blow job. And the camera is behind the dancers as they fearfully back away, splitting apart far enough to give us our first look at Blade, shades on, head down. In slow motion he pulls his jacket open, like a gunslinger moving his duster to show his gun. But Blade is showing his stakes. He smiles as he steps toward them in slow motion.
This is the famous scene that establishes the BLADE action style. They start running at him and the dance music starts and it’s about four minutes of slicing, stabbing, shooting, kicking, punching, flipping, many of his moves sending vampires flying ten feet across the room and slamming into walls or railings. How do you know it’s a real martial arts movie? Because as soon as the fight starts some lady grabs two hooks and runs at him screaming and swinging. Most of the dancers run away in terror, and later the Vampire Council say they “don’t have an exact count” of how many he killed in that club, but I count 21.
See, this is a legit action movie. That’s one reason it’s the comic adaptation that appeals to me most. By now Goyer has adapted more comics than any other screenwriter (he had a hand in writing all three BLADEs, all three Christopher Nolan BATMANs, GHOST RIDER: THE SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN vanquishes SUPERMAN AT THE DAWN OF JUSTICE, the TV movie NICK FURY: AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. and the TV shows Blade: The Series, Constantine and the upcoming Krypton), but at the time of BLADE he was less than a decade past writing DEATH WARRANT and KICKBOXER 2: THE ROAD HOME.
So he’s written a real fight movie, and some notable martial artists show up. Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon has a cameo, Dan Inosanto’s daughter Diana Lee Inosanto does some stunts. Gerald Okamura (SAMURAI COP) plays one of the vampire family leaders. Chuck Jeffreys (HONOR AND GLORY, RAGE, SUPERFIGHTS) and Simon Rhee (BEST OF THE BEST) are henchvampires. Jeff Imada (RAPID FIRE, THEY LIVE, DEATH WARRANT) is the stunt coordinator. The little girl vampire who later pretends to need help and then kicks the shit out of Blade is Eboni Adams, a karate prodigy from Memphis.
After that opening battle, Blade leaves the one human alive but whimpering, next to Quinn, who’s nailed into the wall and on fire, just before the police arrive with two firefighters. I love how the lead officer looks around in disgust before exasperatedly saying “Put him out.” Like they had to be told to put out the fire on a burning man. Like they might not have done it otherwise. For all we know these are all familiars, stooges of the vampires, waiting for their orders.
(Side note: Think about that guy who just wanted to spend the night with Traci Lords, and then saw all this happen. The guy who calls his dick “my heatseaker” and wears a douchey backwards hat. Maybe this night changed his life. If not, imagine how insufferable he must be telling this story all the time!)
Now, here’s the thing about BLADE. That is an incredible opening action scene. Nobody going to this movie expected it to open with a slam dunk/grand slam like that, and it was exhilarating. I will always treasure the memory of going to see this on opening night just hoping for some cheesy fun like MORTAL KOMBAT or something, and then getting this. It was a rare laughing, cheering, blown away audience experience.
So Norrington has knocked us on our ass with this Bloodbath massacre sequence, the dance beats have stopped, the cops have come to clean up the mess, Blade slinks out a basement window and disappears down an alley. Now we know it’s time to settle down, catch our breath, and meet the protagonists of the movie, the normal people who will be our surrogates into this world, right? It looks like it’s these people at the hospital, you got Karen and you got her medical examiner ex-boyfriend (Tim Guinee, also in VAMPIRES) and they’re looking at the charred corpse of Quinn, and discussing their relati– HOLY SHIT THE BURNT-TO-A-CRISP BODY JUMPS UP AND STARTS CHEWING THE GUY’S NECK OFF AND BLADE IS HERE WITH A GUN AND THE COPS ARE SHOOTING AT HIM AND QUINN JUMPS OUT A WINDOW AND CRASHES THROUGH THE ROOF OF AN AMBULANCE AND BLADE GRABS KAREN AND JUMPS OUT THE WINDOW ONTO ANOTHER ROOFTOP and it was not even three minutes into the quiet part before oh shit it’s on again. In case you thought this wasn’t BLADE, but some ordinary movie that fucks around. BLADE doesn’t fuck around.
The villain, Deacon Frost, is played by Stephen Dorff, who unlike Snipes is not a martial artist in my opinion. Jet Li was reportedly cast as this character at one time, but decided to do LETHAL WEAPON 4 instead. Snipes vs. Li would’ve been a good climax, but Li (who was not very comfortable in English at that time) would not have been able to match what Dorff brings to the character.
Frost stands out among Marvel super villains, so much so that I never even thought of him as one until just now. Yes, he has an apocalyptic scheme that involves digging up ancient secrets and kidnapping good guys to use their blood to resurrect an evil god that will turn all the humans into vampires. And yes, he’s so evil that he fucks Blade’s (previously thought to be dead) mom and acts like he wants to be his cool step-dad, even calling him “buddy.” That’s an arguably even more upsetting development than the revelation that he’s the actual father of Blade’s vampire half. But most of this comes out of a world view that makes him seem like a bit of an underdog within his world. The council of tribal elders are some old fuddy duddies resistant to change, afraid of his vision.
Frost is militant in his belief that vampires should be able to congregate and have fun together. The elders are against it because they have treaties with the humans. But Frost makes a pretty good point: “These people are our food!” It’s like if we had a treaty with cows. And were being hunted by a really badass half man, half cow. All of their strengths (milk, methane) none of their weaknesses (tippability).
The elders don’t like Frost because he’s rocking the boat too much, but also because he’s a young punk who listens to electronic dance music and has a 5 o’clock shadow and looks like that guy from S.F.W. but most of all because he was bit into a vampire, not born. They only like pure bloods. They’re old school racist. On the vampire scale he’s young and progressive.
There are plenty of memorable supporting vampires too. The best is Quinn, the arrogant asshole who thinks he’s hotter shit than Frost seems to think he is. Then you got Udo Kier as Dragonetti, surely cast as a reference to being Andy Warhol’s Dracula, but who better to be, like, the president of vampires? There’s a great scene where Frost and his intimidating girlfriend Mercury (Arly Jover, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) wear sunblock and motorcycle helmets to go into the daylight, pull Dragonetti’s fangs out and hold hands while they watch him melt in the sunrise. It’s filmed like a beautiful romantic scene. Again, it kinda makes you like Frost.
Mercury doesn’t have alot of dialogue, but she does spontaneously bite the bloody stump when Quinn gets his hand cut off.
There’s also a very small part with a weirdo henchman named Crease who picks up Blade’s sword and giggles “I got his pigsticker,” not knowing it has a safety system that’s about to take his hand off, and then that his friends will laugh at him, like the guy in ROAD WARRIOR that loses his fingers trying to catch the boomerang. Only on this viewing did I figure out that that’s Matt Schulze, who played Vince in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS parts 1 and 5 and the villain Seagal’s OUT OF REACH. He also plays the much bigger part of Chupa in BLADE II, and has said that he didn’t tell them when he auditioned that he was in the first one.
But the best supporting character is on the human side, it’s Blade’s father figure, Whistler. I read on the internet that the character was created for an episode of a crappy Spider-man cartoon:
But then I found out he was created for the movie, and Marvel didn’t realize that when they put him in the cartoon and had to pay Goyer a bunch of money.
(Is that Blade supposed to be white? I can’t tell for sure. He does have a light saber, I know that much.)
Casting Kristofferson as this crusty, coughing soldier in the war on suckheads was a great move. It’s a character that really capitalizes on both sides of Kristofferson’s persona, the earthy redneck and the wise poet. He’s got a vulgar, fuck all y’all attitude while truly caring about Blade, giving him good advice and sacrificing his life (give or take) for the good fight. And his froggy voice makes for A+ one-liner delivery when he crashes through a wall with a bunch of guns and croaks “Catch you fuckers at a bad time?”
By the way, that scene – where Blade is literally nailed to the wall and starts laughing because he knows that Whistler is about to show up and kick ass – is a trademark Goyer trick. He likes to have the characters be up to something without the audience being in on it yet (see also: Gordon faking his death in THE DARK KNIGHT, Blade already knowing Scud is going to betray him in BLADE II and already having a bomb implanted in him, Nicky Fury having a robot duplicate of himself in NICK FURY: AGENT OF SHIELD).
To me there’s only one aspect of the movie that dates poorly (besides the pitched-up voice and farting of the obese librarian Pearl, a part I never liked), and that’s some of the digital effects. They were kinda low budget and unfinished looking at the time, and now there’s this one shot of blood dripping that practically looks like an animated cutout. Luckily Norrington was wise enough to keep the amount of digital imagery down compared to, say, fellow ’90s New Line Cinema horror-action movies like MORTAL KOMBAT and SPAWN, even changing the ending to leave out a questionable CGI Blood God. The “ashings” of vampires are simple enough to hold up okay, and the two real showstoppers (Frost getting cut in half and the instances of vampires puffing up and exploding from the anti-coagulent drug) are imaginative enough in concept to make up for any shortcomings in realism.
Even the dance music soundtrack stands the test of time. It seems like the tracks were legitimately chosen for their mood and energy, not their potential to sell CDs or promote artists from affiliated labels. I think the soundtrack works really well, and not even in a MORTAL KOMBAT campy kind of way. (Trivia: The song “Playing With Fire” by Expansion Union contains a sample of “Shiftee,” performed by Onyx, a group that includes Sticky Fingaz, a.k.a. Kirk “Sticky” Jones, who played Blade in the TV series.)
It’s also worth noting that BLADE predates THE MATRIX, which shares its fetish for black leather, cool shades and kinetic kung fu scenes set to electronic dance music. BLADE even has a slow motion CGI bullet dodge that’s like a poor man’s bullet time. And when it comes down to it the subtext is pretty similar too, maybe mixed with a little THEY LIVE. “The world you live in” (the Matrix) “is just a sugar-coated topping. There is another world beneath it: the real world.” In that world elites (vampires) who see us as cattle control things – “They’ve got their claws into everything. Politics, finance, real estate. They already own half of downtown.” And they’re aided by “familiars,” cops or suck-ups who pathetically do the vampires’ bidding in hopes that they’ll some day become one of them. Blade has little pity for these sellouts. When a black cop begs, “Please, I just work for them!” he thinks about what happened to Whistler and shoots him dead.
But there’s one thing that makes a major difference in that symbolism: the hero of THE MATRIX is a white middle class guy, an office drone unhappy with his fake life, sensing that there’s more out there for him. Blade doesn’t have that luxury. He’s a black man who lost his mother to the system (the vampires) and grew up on the streets.
It’s got that stuff going on underneath, but the surface is so shiny it took me years to even notice. When I think about the excitement of that first time seeing it, one of several crowdpleasing moments that comes to mind is shortly before the climactic fight, when Blade finally disposes of Quinn. Quinn has stolen his sunglasses and is wearing them as he taunts him. Blade takes a run at him and decapitates him with a wire.
When Quinn disintegrates the shades are sent spinning, and Blade reaches up and catches them in mid-air. And he holds them there dramatically for a beat before slowly lowering them to his face as the camera rotates around him 360 degrees and then he smiles and the crazy dance music kicks in as he goes to work on the other vampires.
No other super hero could get away with that. No white person period could pull it off (maybe Brian Bosworth). Few movies could treat their subjects this seriously, then do something this knowingly absurd at such a crucial moment, and only enhance the drama. It is unique to Blade’s personality that he would do something like that, and to Norrington’s style that he would give it one of the most elaborate shots in the movie. And it is the absolutely perfect thing to do.
Like Blade himself, the movie is a hybrid of different types that combine to form one unique, powerful force. It’s one of the greats of the comic book genre, the vampire genre and the action genre. No matter how old it gets, no matter how many great sequels it has (exactly one), BLADE, to me, always earns those sunglasses.
RECOMMENDED: This excellent David S. Goyer interview on the Writer’s Panel podcast, where I got many of the background details mentioned in this essay.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.