A vampire hunter chases down vampires in windy Los Angeles.
Directed by Stephen Norrington
Starring Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, and N'Bushe Wright
Review by Jon Kissel
Snipes’ action star heyday is in its fullest throes with Blade. This period catches him before his tax troubles and his questionable on-set behavior. I wouldn’t say he’s in the top tier of macho stars, as Blade requires him to do and say a lot of silly and diminishing things, but he’s well-suited to play a self-serious vampire hunter who knows his way around a dramatic superhero pose. He and Kristofferson have a lived-in relationship where a lot goes unsaid, not because they’re incapable of speaking but because their bond is mutually understood. Whistler doesn’t have to grab Blade’s hand when he gets his serum shots, but he does. One knows Snipes is succeeding as an action star because he doesn’t make himself look silly when he’s doing silly things, like fist-pumping after stapling a vampire to the wall or really pumping his fists as he’s kicking a prone vampire. These moments, and others, can only be described as dumb, but there’s a camp tone to the film that Snipes is transcending. He can do the dumb thing and the movie can be dumb, but he somehow remains cool.
The camp angle comes from the era and the villains. The first character we meet in the present is an archetypal bro wearing the outfit of just such a type in the late 90’s. He’s deeply out of his element but doesn’t realize it until blood come pouring from the sprinklers in what remains a striking scene. The 90’s kitsch persists with Donal Logue’s biker dirtbag Quinn, who Blade doesn’t kill in the first scene for whatever reason, and especially with Dorff’s Frost. A lot is communicated in his long fingernail. Unthreatening in a way future Blade villains won’t be, Frost is a poseur plagued with daddy issues, rebelling against a hierarchy that won’t let him stay up past his bedtime. The film gives him an out with standard supervillain nonsense about the next stage of evolution, but he’s really a petulant jerk that Blade is able to dispose of even in his elevated state with an everyday chemical. There’s tellingly no sense of how Frost was able to capture the entire vampire council of LA, because it wouldn’t be believable that this guy, his breathy girlfriend, and Donal Logue could do that. Blade is too early in the superhero cycle to be revolutionary so it has to pretend Frost is a worthy villain, but the better version of this is closer to Hans Gruber, someone who’s reasonably smart but aware of his considerable physical limitations.
The meetings between Blade and his quarry are the film’s biggest draw and there’s some amount to be said in the film’s favor here. The immediate dissolving of vampire bodies into ash remains a cool effect. The action setpieces generally work, particularly the subway chase. I liked seeing Frost toss that little girl through a hot dog stand and be totally fine afterwards save for some glass in her hair. There’s also some appreciation for Blade’s consciousness of itself as a movie starring a Black man in a period of time when such a thing didn’t make the press swoon all over a giant corporation’s ‘forward thinking.’ What little commentary is present isn’t spotlighted, but it’s there. The cops treat him suspiciously and often fire at his back. Blade’s moment where he has to feed off Dr. Jensen is filmed like a sex scene. The Blade-Whistler relationship has some white savior to it, but at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of the alienation that can come with being mixed-race. Frost calls Blade an Uncle Tom at one point, a meta moment where a white director and writer are utilizing a Black star for their movie. No one would mistake Blade for I Am Not Your Negro, but if this was made today, the woke film press would get a handful of essays out about what’s going on in the movie.
Blade is going to be topped within its own franchise and then again many times over in the genre it kickstarts, but this remains a respectable entry with a lot of good qualities, some purposeful and some accidental. If cable was still a thing, it’d be perfectly acceptable as a film one left on in the background, if only to get to the impossibly bad CGI that marks the rushed and absurd ending. C+