“You obviously do not know who you are fucking with!”
On one hand, it’s hard to believe that BLADE II was fifteen damn years ago. I mean – I reviewed it when it came out. And I’d already been around for a few years. Am I really that old? On the other hand, an awful lot has changed since the movie came out.
Let’s start with Wesley Snipes (“Blade”). He made a part 3, had a falling out with the writer, they made a Blade TV show without him, he got relegated to DTV, got busted for tax evasion, did time, got out, now is sort of back and still the Man and hopefully will achieve more greatness. Guillermo del Toro (director) became better known and beloved for his specific visual style and obsessions, was nominated for a best screenplay Oscar for PAN’S LABYRINTH, continued to alternate between Spanish language art films and Hollywood productions, but never did a for-hire gig again, unless you count THE HOBBIT, which he toiled on for a few years before quitting. David S. Goyer (writer) directed part 3, co-wrote Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy and went on to mastermind the DC movie universe, as if trying to earn the extreme hatred many comic fans had long held for him for some reason. Donnie Yen (martial arts choreographer, “Snowman”) had a huge career resurgence at home in Hong Kong, particularly with the IP MAN series, and recently finally had success in English language movies playing the best characters in ROGUE ONE and xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE. Norman Reedus (“Scud”) also became a geek icon by playing Daryl on The Walking Dead, as did Ron Perlman (“Reinhardt”) by reteaming with del Toro to play Hellboy in two live action films and two animated (plus starring in many seasons of Sons of Anarchy). Luke Goss (“Jared Nomak”) was a former pop star from the boy band Bros who had been in a few movies. This breakthrough role led to playing the elf equivalent of Nomak in del Toro’s HELLBOY 2 and eventually being a frequent face of DTV, including starring as Frankenstein in DEATH RACE 2 and 3. Matt Schulze (“Chupa”) – okay, he didn’t become a big thing, but to me he’s an icon because he’s the villain in Seagal’s OUT OF REACH and Vince in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS and FAST FIVE.
Maybe more notably than any of this, the techniques del Toro pioneered to combine live action stunts with animated doubles for super-powered fights and camera moves evolved into the modern style of comic book action (and blockbusters in general). His smart ways of adding digital effects to practical ones have also been influential. Getting a genuine visionary to do the sequel to a movie like BLADE is one of those things you always wish for as a movie fan but shouldn’t hold your breath for. This time you could’ve, though. It happened.
Now, most people talking about del Toro these days, they’re not gonna consider BLADE II to be one of his best. They just look at it as an aberration, a gig that he took before he had the clout to make movies like PAN’S LABYRINTH that seem to pour directly out of his imagination onto the screen. But as much as we generally prefer an original, unbridled vision, there’s something hugely exciting about someone like del Toro just this one time aiming his magic beams at a sequel to somebody else’s movie, putting his unmistakable fingerprints on the already beautifully established world of BLADE. It would be cool if this was just one of many Blade adventures in different parts of the world, with different directors doing their thing like it used to be with the ALIEN and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sagas. Del Toro does an incredible job of recapturing the vibe of the character and transplanting him into del Toro land. The Daywalker has left the nameless American (or Canadian) city for a seedy area in the Czech Republic where we seem to almost exclusively encounter vampires and their familiars.
The opening takes place at a blood bank so questionable that there are several stray cats wandering around in the lobby. You might assume that this coughing, desperate blood donor (Goss) is falling into a vampire trap like the dance club doofus who opens part 1, but when the fascist vampire medical staff pull him into the back he’s the one who surprises them by drinking their blood. “Vampires! I hate vampires!” he says.
This is Jared Nomak, patient zero for the deadly Reaper virus turning vampires into these things that fiend on vampire blood like it’s crack.
BLADE’s first appearance in part 1 is one of my very favorite character introductions. But I also love this sequel approach where we need no buildup at all, we already know and love him and are thrilled to see him appear mid-combat, briefly first-person-narrating his back story for those who came in late, Marco Beltrami score seeming to suggest he’s some kind of vampire James Bond.
If he is then who’s Whistler, is he Q? Goyer and/or del Toro were wise enough to know they should cheat and pretend Blade’s weapons expert and mentor played by Kris Kristofferson didn’t actually die when he shot himself off camera in part 1. Turns out the vampires kept him barely alive in a tank and now Blade is out to retrieve him like he’s frozen Han Solo. It seems like maybe Blade’s plan was to put him out of his misery, but we know he’s got a soft spot for the old man. One look in his eyes and he decides to sling him over one shoulder like John Matrix carrying a log.
Back at HQ Blade tries to de-vampire Whistler with his serum, but it’s a tough love intervention type scenario: he throws him in a room and warns that the blinds are coming up the next morning, whether he’s cured or not. We know our old friend is truly saved the next morning when Blade asks him how he feels and we hear his first words of the sequel: “Like hammered shit.”
Yeah, that’s our Whistler all right.
Whistler’s time among the suckheads gives us reason to be suspicious of him, as Blade’s spunky new mechanic/weapon inventor Scud (Reedus) does. For his part, Whistler has every reason to hate this kid who replaced him in his own operation, seems to have a TV playing cartoons in the background at all times and has the habit of calling Blade “B” even though it’s the same amount of syllables as just calling him by his actual name. I mean why would you do that? Blade would never call him S.
But more than this new dynamic, the beauty of resurrecting Whistler is obviously that we get more of Kristofferson’s lovable, crusty crudeness and shit-talking (he calls Reinhardt “ya fuckin nipple head”). And this doesn’t get as much attention but his fatherly feelings toward Blade give the movie a little sweetness. There’s a genuinely touching moment when he looks at Blade, impaled onto a slab by the bad guys, and tells him he’ll never leave him.
I haven’t even mentioned BLADE II’s ingenious premise yet. Reapers are such a threat to the Vampire Nation that they send two goggled vampire ninjas to the Blade Cave to offer a truce (via scroll). They convince him to work with the Blood Pack, the “small tactical unit” of vampires who have been training for two years to fight him. So it’s a problem-solving challenge to build weapons to use against Reapers that won’t hurt this squad of colorful vampire badasses who are his tenuous teammates. They squabble and backstab but there are times when they work together well. I love when a call comes over the walkie talkie that, “Daylight’s coming. You’re on your own, Blade.”
BLADE’s villain Deacon Frost was a young hip dance club promoter. Del Toro brings in the gothic horror, with Lord Eli Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann, THE PIANIST, HOSTEL PART III) being an ancient vampire of the pointy ears, bald head, wearing-robes variety. He has bluish, transparent skin and lives in a chamber full of ancient stone carvings but eats his blood in Jello form and has a normal human lawyer (Karel Roden, 15 MINUTES, LARGO WINCH) as a sidekick. Nomak is a more physical threat – both as a Reaper and as a martial artist – but he’s also more sympathetic, a tragic Frankenstein’s monster out to destroy his creator.
Hats off to del Toro for making it a legit creature feature. We’ve seen many split-mouthed monsters since the Reapers, but it’s still a powerful design. They’re so weird and believably animalistic when, for example, Whistler finds one with his arm stuck under a rock like a fox with his paw caught in a trap. Or what about the one that Snowman (Yen) stabs into the wall with his sword and it just scurries up like a spider, tearing itself clean open on the sword, dangling entrails like it’s no big deal?
And I know it’s kind of a nod to ALIENS, but the scene where Nyssa (Leonor Varela, WRONG TURN AT TAHOE, SLEEP DEALER, HELL RIDE) cuts open a Reaper and speculates about its physiology is a winner. So believable and gross and sets up the crucial detail that their hearts are encased in a thick plate of bone that’s only penetrable on one side. It’s tricky to stake these guys. Like picking a lock.
I guess as an extension of the first film’s MORTAL KOMBAT-esque dance club friendly soundtrack (or a tribute to JUDGMENT NIGHT‘s rap-meets-rock pairings), this one teams rappers with electronica dudes – Ice Cube with Paul Oakenfold, The Roots with BT, Mos Def with Massive Attack, etc. I think the songs are fine in the movie, but Snipes has a problem with at least one of them. On the commentary he complains about the use of the (admittedly weak) Ice Cube song during a suiting up montage:
“This is wack! Terrible. Terrible choice of song. What is this?… I mean, it could be so much more funkier, and like ‘Yeah, alright, I’d love to be with these guys if they’re goin out to do what they wanna do.’ Now it’s like, ‘Tssshhh… you guys go ahead, I’ll catch you when you get back.'”
For his part, I know del Toro is embarrassed of some of the digital shots for looking too “video gamey,” which was a complaint even at the time. Not all of them are perfect but I continue to think there’s some cartoony charm to even the fake looking stuff, especially the vampires in the ninja suits swinging through the rafters like Ninja Turtles.
I heard somewhere that del Toro studied all of Steve Norrington’s raw footage from part 1 to understand how he put it together. Beneath the bright yellow tinting and supercharged camera gimmicks is a perfect revival of that show-offy style with the dance beats, the super heroic Snipes poses, the whoosh of spinning blades and clanks and clicks of metal machinery as he stabs and slashes vampires into clouds of embers.
Del Toro’s love of atmosphere and weirder, more complicated villains doesn’t get in the way of delivering the badass goods. Right at the beginning you got Blade on foot chasing a vampire who’s on a motorcycle. He does a flip and lands on the bike, beheading the driver, turning him to dust, stealing the bike and skidding out next to his car, which he blows a kiss at. Then he uses the motorcycle’s spinning wheel as a torture device.
And there’s the sword fight with the two ninja vampires – I’m assuming that was Yen’s work, and if so he expresses more through spinning blades than dialogue (which he has none of). And the fights with Nomak, where Blade gets flung and his head busts through a stone pillar. The groundbreaking effects work to combine real Snipes with flipping animated doubles gives it a larger than life comic book feel, but not at the expense of natural fight choreography.
Maybe the most badass part is when Blade finally takes out racist Reinhardt (Perlman) and his dumb alt-right facial hair. First Blade quickly plows through his armored security goons, ending with a straight up WWF style suplex – man, it still feels thrillingly taboo to use a move like that on film – onto glass and then popping back up so fast it makes a whoosh sound.
Even better than Blade’s ass-kicking capabilities is the fact that he’s always three steps ahead of everybody. When Reinhardt first insults him, Blade pulls a Seagal, giving the goon a chance to take a shot at him that you know will fail. Then Blade pulls a Blade, grabbing the chump by his head and attaching a miniature bomb to it. Much later, when Scud reveals that he’s been a mole the whole time and that he even sabotaged that bomb, Blade lets him gloat for a minute before revealing that actually he knew all along and secretly unsabotaged the bomb! I love the goofy paint-Blade-into-a-corner-and-then-say-that-he-meant-to-do-that style of the writing here, but on repeat viewings you can see that it doesn’t come entirely out of the blue. Blade seems to be accusing Whistler when he says “Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer,” but actually he’s tipping him off. Notice Scud is in the background when he says it.
Blade’s Batman-like unfuckwithableness, always tougher and smarter and better prepared than his opponents, is one reason his movies stand out. But the series also represents a genre hybrid almost as rare as Daywalkers. These movies were obviously an influence on the UNDERWORLD series, but otherwise you don’t see too many attempts to mix gothic horror and straight up action. I’m sure even if you did BLADE II would remain the very best version of that. Here we have a genuinely great monster movie that doesn’t skimp on the tough guy shit that I love most. Sometimes the two even overlap, for example there’s a visual reference to APOCALYPSE NOW (and many ’80s action movies that copied it) as Blade rises in slow motion not out of water or mud but a rejuvenating pool of blood. Ready for a fight, he simultaneously cracks his neck and bares his fangs.
Nomak also exemplifies this action-horror blend as a literal monster who has an acrobatic martial arts duel with the hero on a catwalk. And in the middle of a fortress-invasion sequence of running through squads of paramilitary guards, withstanding machine gun bullets to bang their helmets together and leap through a series of closing security doors, we find him at the top of a pile of dead bodies he’s just fed on, roaring victoriously with his alien-like split mouth.
We get our beloved Blade lines and Whistler throwing him his sunglasses like the Lady in the Lake giving Excalibur to Arthur, but also del Toro gets his bittersweet melodrama. When Blade defeats Nomak by getting his broken sword through the side of that bone plate it’s Nomak who sees relief in death and pushes it in himself. “It’s… strange. It hurts… it hurts no more.”
I know some people who love BLADE II but don’t like BLADE at all. That doesn’t compute for me, but I can understand liking part II better. It’s one of the great sequels, an unmatched mix of director and material, a pairing that simultaneously makes perfect sense and no sense at all, a volatile mix that turned out to be chemically sound. Somehow it exceeded my high expectations on opening night, and a decade and a half later there’s still nothing like it.
So here’s to you, BLADE II. I raise my plate of blood Jello in your honor. Listen all you motherfuckers.