Blade (1998) – Directed by Stephen Norrington – Starring Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, N’Bushe Wright, Donal Logue, Udo Kier, Sanaa Lathan, and Traci Lords.
Why doesn’t BLADE get the respect I think it deserves?
Is it because it stars an incredibly minor character from the Marvel Universe? Because it stars an actor who’s fallen off the public’s radar? Because it stars a black dude? Because it’s a combo superhero-horror movie? Because no one likes vampir-
Okay, it’s probably not that last one.
I’m not sure why BLADE is an afterthought, but even if we decide that it’s not a film worth remembering for the content, we need to carve out a place for its cultural importance. It’s easy to forget now with all these successful Marvel movies how important BLADE was at the time, but back in 1998 it sometimes felt like Marvel was never going to get a good movie made that connected with the public. Of course, by the late ’90s, the only successful cinematic superhero franchise running involved Batman, and Bats was busy running himself into the ground.
And then along came BLADE.
When I first saw BLADE, I didn’t even think of it as a superhero film because it wasn’t a character I had grown up reading, or even had any real connection with, at all. What I connected with, though, was the action and horror and style. BLADE is an excellent movie, made for grown-ups more than the all-ages crowd, and even though Wesley Snipes occasionally tries too hard to push his cool onto the screen, there’s little to complain about in this still-solid film.
It doesn’t mean everything, but it does mean something that there’s still no superhero film out there that look and sounds and moves like BLADE does. Even re-watching it now, it leaves me baffled that Marvel is so unwilling to get either a Black Panther movie into production, or any female character into a solo film.
I mean – someone made a movie starring Blade.
And it’s awesome.
And it was a hit.
It would be one thing if Marvel simply didn’t have a script they were happy with, but the comments coming from the Marvel offices about how Black Panther presents a unique challenge or that there isn’t any female character or female actress who can carry a solo movie is just maddeningly dumb. Let me repeat – they made a Blade movie. And it’s awesome. And it was a hit.
BLADE starts out with Traci Lords bringing that tall blonde cop from The Shield to a nightclub run by Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), where they dance to music I don’t listen to as the sprinklers in the ceiling start raining blood down on them. Nothing about this scene makes me raise my incredibly low opinion of vampires so I was primed and ready for Blade (Wesley Snipes) to show up and start offing the smug bastards. And that’s what he does. The action scenes are impressive without being enough to make the film work on their own. Snipes is the real deal as a martial artist vampire hunter, though. He may pose a bit too much, but there’s no doubting his ability to kick ass with hands, feet, and weapons.
It’s not the action that makes me love BLADE, though, but the relationship between Blade and Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). As Blade says at one point, it’s a perfect relationship because, “He makes weapon and I use them.” Whistler is the guy behind the scenes, the one who patches up not only their weapons, but Blade, too. He administers the serum that allows Blade to hold his bloodlust at bay. There’s surprisingly great chemistry between Snipes and Kristofferson, as his old man crankiness provides the perfect balance to Snipes’ young man posturing.
At Frost’s club, Blade has a violent throwdown with Quinn (Donal Logue), and after setting him on fire but before he can deliver the killing blow, the cops show up and take Quinn’s blackened, crispy body to the morgue, where he wakes up, bites one doctor bad and another not-so-bad. This other doctor is Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright), and even though she was bitten, Blade takes her home to Whistler instead of killing her.
“Bringing home strays now?” Whistler grumbles, telling Blade what Blade knows, that he should have offered her. Whistler shoots her up with garlic and she gets mostly better, and then they release her back into the wild.
One of Frost’s familiars (humans who want to be turned into a vamp so bad they become pets) shows up at Jenson’s apartment to kill her and then Blade appears to rough him up. Jenson is furious at being used to lure an attacker into the open, but Blade dismisses her concerns with a curt, “Get over it.” Using Karen as bait and being emotionally blunt with her gives BLADE a rough edge that serves as the link between Kristofferson and Snipes.
BLADE is an action movie and a horror movie and a superhero movie, but when you combine all of it together and distill it down into the Blade/Whistler relationship, BLADE is a business movie. When Whistler shows up to save Blade an Jenson and growls at the vamps, “Catch you f*ckers at a bad time?” you can hear both the distaste for vamps, the joy in killing them, and the tiredness that he feels from still having to do this. Whistler and Blade have each gotten into this life because vampires killed their family, but they’ve been at this long enough that they’re feeling the grind. Their emotions are still there but they need to be pulled out of them. When Jenson suggests to Blade that he can get past his revenge and be like everyone else, Blade angrily tells her, “I have spent my entire life searching for that thing that killed my mother, and made me what I am. And every time I take one of those monsters out, I get a little piece of that life back. So don’t you talk to me about forgetting.”
In one of the nice twists, it turns out that Blade’s mother, Vanessa (Sanaa Lathan), is still alive and a member of Frost’s vampire … what do you call a group of vampires, anyway? Whatever it is, she’s hanging with Frost because Frost is the guy who turned her into a vampire on the night Blade was born. There’s an incredibly uncomfortable tension between Blade and mommy; he’s obviously thrilled that she’s alive but horrified at what she’s become and who she’s with. Vanessa, for her part, is all sorts of hot and actively uses that hotness to get a bit seductive with her son.
It’s creepy, but it does help to effectively demonstrate what can happen to someone when they lose their humanity and become a vampire. It’s one thing to look at Frost and see that he wants to gain power in order to stick it to the purebloods (Frost was once human and so the vamps that were born vamps look down at him), but another to see Blade’s mom so far removed from her humanity that she’s using her sex appeal to seduce her son over to their cause.
Frost wants to become a vampire god or some nonsense; all I know is that it leads to a cool final battle that sees lots of blood and lots of killing that prove incredibly satisfying. BLADE is a really good movie that could have suffered from being parts horror, action, and superhero, but Snipes, Kristofferson, and Wright make it all work. It’s been nearly fifteen years since BLADE hit the theaters and it still stands as movie that’s important both culturally and aesthetically.