MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Wesley Snipes (Blade), Stephen Dorff (Deacon Frost), Kris Kristofferson (Abraham Whistler), N'Bushe Wright (Karen), Donal Logue (Quinn), Udo Kier (Dragonetti), Arly Jover (Mercury), Traci Lords (Racquel), Kevin Patrick Walls (Krieger), Tim Guinee (Curtis Webb)
"Blade," a bloody, nightmarish, horror comic book of a movie, features a vampire underworld organized like the Mafia. Run by twelve elders who are of "pure blood"--meaning they were born vampires rather than being turned by a bite on the neck--they have no interest in taking over the world. Instead, they maintain their ancient power base within the existing structures of human civilization. In other words, they bribe the police and buy into a lot of legitimate businesses.
But this isn't how Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) wants to do it. A young, hip vampire who is not of pure blood, he is ambitious and sick of living within the boundaries of the human race. "They're our food, not our allies," he hisses at one point. Frost has plans--big plans--to raise an ancient blood god that will give him supreme power as a vampire and wipe out the humans--"cattle," as he calls them--forever.
The only thing standing in his way is Blade (Wesley Snipes), a half-vampire who has made it his life's duty to wipe out all bloodsuckers. Blade works with a partner, the gruff, unshaven Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), the builder of the various weapons Blade employs to take care of the Undead. He also picks up another partner, a hematologist named Karen (N'Bushe Wright), who has been bitten by a vampire and may turn into one of the Undead at any moment.
Like most vampire stories, "Blade" picks and chooses the parts of vampire lore that suit its needs. In this case, essence of garlic and silver are especially destructive weapons (not to mention a new trick discovered by Karen, which involves a blood coagulate that reacts violently with vampire blood and makes them literally explode). Some of Blade's devious weapons include a large gun that fires silver stakes, a boomerang-like weapon that slices and dices, and of course, his trusty sword that comes equipped with a convenient theft-deterrent system--if anyone but the owner uses it, blades suddenly pop out of the handle and make mincemeat of the thief's hand.
"Blade" is best seen as part of the on-going neo-Gothic action film movement in American cinema, which was arguable started with Tim Burton's "Batman" in 1989, but really picked up steam with Alex Proyas' music-video-inspired revenge fantasy, "The Crow" in 1993. Since then, Hollywood has turned out a number of dark, violent, and surprisingly good commercial movies like "Spawn" (1997) and "Dark City" (1998), which take traditional Gothic elements and inject them with a pumping, modern sensibility. "Blade" draws heavily from those earlier films in its visual look and tone, but it also reflects Japanese anime (not surprisingly, "Blade" is based on a comic book series). The Japanese movie it most closely resembles is "Vampire Hunter D" (1992), which also featured a half-human vampire hunter who dispatches his long-toothed enemies with a wicked blade.
In a case of art imitating art, almost all of the neo-Gothic movies, including "Batman," "The Crow," and "Spawn," were based on graphic novels. All of them have similar traits, especially in the hero--like those other films, "Blade" has an obvious good guy, but he is an embattled man. As Eric Draven from "The Crow" was a restless spirit from the dead, Spawn was trapped between his hellish origin and his desire to rejoin his former tranquil life, and Batman was haunted by the violent deaths of his parents, Blade is a superhero torn between two sides.
And this works--on a deeper level, it is more affecting to watch a superhero who is vulnerable, not to an outside force like Kryptonite, but to his own inner demons. To fight evil, Blade must draw power from the very evil that is inside him. As Frost bitterly remarks, "You have all of our strengths, and none of our weaknesses." Which is true, except for Blade's taste for human blood, which he fights by injecting himself with a special serum.
"Blade" was directed by Stephen Norrington, an ex-special effects wizard whose only directorial experience was a mostly unseen British sci-fi/action film called "Death Machine" (1994). Worked from a script by David S. Goyer (who has a great deal of experience in this genre, having contributed work on "The Crow" sequel and "Dark City"), Norrington takes full command of all the tricks at his disposal.
His action sequences are generally well-done, although he has a tendency to let his fight scenes go on too long. Snipes has obviously been working hard on his martial arts skills, and sometimes Norrington seems too enraptured to pull his camera away. He also gives the audience a heavy (almost too heavy) dose of blood. It's been a while since I can remember a film that was this outright gory and blood-soaked, with Blade hacking off limbs, vampire bodies exploding, and at one point, a group of gyrating nightcrawlers in a disco being rained on with gallons of blood from the sprinkler system in the ceiling.
The acting by all the principals is effective, but strictly tailored to their roles--Kristofferson is appropriately stern as a vengeful man who lost his family to vampires and Dorff plays everything out on a limb like he has nothing to lose. In the titular role, Snipes is generally competent, although his muscular, mechanical moves often seem more appropriate for a Terminator clone than a vampire hunter. I especially like Udo Kier as the head of the vampire organization (for those who don't remember, Kier played a vampire of a different sort in Paul Morrissey's campy 1974 film "Blood For Dracula").
On the whole, "Blade" is a thoroughly watchable action movie with several fright-inducing scenes, a good deal of black humor, and some notable underlying themes that never quite congeal. The comparison of the vampires to organized crime is quite obvious, and sometimes it's hard not to see the movie as an allegory about racism--some of the statements made by Frost would fit perfectly into the mouths of bigoted white supremacists (although here I guess it's more a case of specisim than racism).
Unfortunately, this theme is somewhat confused because it's hard to tell if the vampires are meant to be the oppressed minorities or the supremacist "master race." Of course, few people will bother to dig this deep into the film's subtexts, and will be more than happy to simply absorb the whirling, blood-soaked exterior.
©1998 James Kendrick