Lest ye forget, it wasn't so long ago that comicbook adaptations didn't pull in countless millions at the international box office. It wasn't long ago that fanboys could only dream of seeing their favorite superheroes fully realized on screen. And it wasn't long ago that the seemingly ever-fledgling genre was the laughing stock of the industry. Aside from a few upstanding citizens like Superman: The Movie and Tim Burton's Batman, comicbook movies were either laughable, corny, or laughably corny. But the early 1990s gave way to Image Comics and a darker breed of hero; a new crop of cold, cynical antiheroes who rejected flashy spandex and boyscout heroics in favor of black leather, bullets-n-blades, and enough bloody violence to attract a curious, superhero-leery crowd. Marvel and DC began dabbling in darker material soon thereafter and Hollywood, ever vigilant in its analysis of the market, decided it was time to cash in on the growing antihero phenomenon.
Enter a decade marked by the likes of Batman Returns, The Crow, Judge Dredd, City of Angels, Spawn and, of course, Blade. They weren't Hollywood's first foray into the darker panels of comics -- Heavy Metal, Conan the Barbarian, Howard the Duck, The Punisher, Burton's Batman, and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles preceded them all -- but each successive film brought with it enough clout and profit to make the next project on the horizon that much more lucrative. Without Blade and its game-changing success, we wouldn't have X-Men and Spider-Man, at least not as we know them. And without X-Men or Spider-Man, we wouldn't have most of the superhero films we enjoy today. But is Blade any good? More importantly, after almost fifteen years, does it still hold up? Or does it deserve little more than our thanks for the crucial role it played in propelling the comicbook genre into the future?
"I promise you, you'll be dead by dawn."
Blade's mother was attacked by a vampire while she was pregnant. She died but he lived, and he'd undergone certain genetic changes. He can withstand garlic, silver, even sunlight. And he's got their strength. This time tomorrow, all those wounds of his will be healed. He still ages like a human, though. You see, vampires age slower than us. Unfortunately, he also inherited their thirst.
First and foremost, yes, Blade still entertains, and yes, it still has a soft spot in my heart where it's free to plant a stake whenever it likes. Does it hold up, though? Not so much, especially when compared to its vastly superior sequel. The story itself isn't a problem -- Blade (Wesley Snipes), a superhuman vampire hunter blessed with all the creatures' strengths and hardly any of their weaknesses, faces a growing threat from Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), a renegade vampire hellbent on resurrecting a blood god and subjugating the human race -- and the performances are a cut above, at least when it comes to '90s comicbook films. Snipes is Blade, even though he seems dead set on posing, breaking character to spout cheesy one-liners, and sliding his sunglasses on his face as if it's some sort of pro-wrestling power-up. He takes Blade seriously, and that goes a long way toward making the vampire hunter and his world that much more intriguing. It's Dorff, though, that almost runs away with the film. An underrated villain's villain, Dorff transforms Frost into a rage-infused whirlwind and hurls himself against his unshakably stone-cold nemesis with devilishly frenzied fury. Never mind the fact that he bears little resemblance to his comicbook counterpart. Never mind that the two couldn't be more different. Dorff is a perfect counterbalance to Snipes, and his clashes with Blade, the vampire council and, really, anything that dares to challenge his authority are the lifeblood of Marvel Comics' first big Hollywood hit.
The rest of the cast isn't so lucky. Kris Kristofferson is admittedly fantastic as Blade's mentor and only friend, and does plenty of heavy lifting during Snipes' dramatic scenes. And Donal Logue, a character actor you'll recognize from... well, just about everything, still manages to drum up plenty of good laughs with his cocky, rockabilly henchman shtick. But most everyone else struggles. N'Bushe Wright is out of her depth as a recently bitten hematologist on the verge of turning into a vampire. Unsure, wooden and even vacant at times, she fails as a romantic interest, a damsel in distress and, eventually, as a shotgun-toting, fist-flinging female lead. Udo Kier cranks out yet another chilly European baddie with all the conviction of a stagehand, Sanaa Lathan is asleep at the wheel as Blade's mother, Arly Jover is a snarling blank slate as an icy vamp, and the other humans, familiars and vampires that frequent Frost's circles are pure '90s cinematic kitsch. David S. Goyer's dialogue is just as hit or miss, and tends to come apart at the seams if it's given to anyone other than Snipes, Kristofferson or Dorff. And even they have trouble with a few questionable lines. (Gems like "you tell him it's open season on all suckheads," "my mother used to say a cold heart is a dead heart," or "I got two new hands and I don't know which one to kill you with!" Or my personal cheeseball favorite: "Some motherf#$%ers are always trying to ice-skate uphill."
Then there's the shootouts, sword fights and vampire kills, which never quite live up to the opening rave massacre. It's all reasonably thrilling, in a mindlessly bloody kind of way, but it's also hindered by whiplash editing, hyperactive cuts and dated CG effects. For every satisfying strike and battle, there's a cartoony disintegration, a silly weapon, bubbling and bursting heads, the regenerated arm of a possessed vampire, the unintentionally hilarious sight of winged skeletons clawing their way out of the mouths of twelve elders, or a thousand pound mass of prosthetics with a face, slabs of milk-white flesh, buzzing high-pitched voice, wriggling arms and all. Even the arrival of Frost's vampire god results in a silly looking balloon inflating with bright red blood (which, upon exploding, splatters everywhere... except on Blade, who's standing so close he lifts his arm to shield his face from a mess that never comes). Even in 1998, some of the visual effects led to snickering in the audience. In 2012, most of the aforementioned effects induce full fledged belly laughs. And yet it's all good fun. While Blade isn't nearly as effective as it was fourteen years ago, flawed as it was at the time, nostalgia gives it a hearty heave-ho, and Snipes, Dorff and Kristofferson drag it the rest of the way. Blade II remains, hands down, the best of the franchise outings, but, all things considered, the blood-spurting, silver-slinging, action-packed film that started it all holds up pretty well.
Fear not, dear readers. Blade's 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer has not fallen victim to overzealous processing, noise reduction, scrubbing or any invasive cleanup effort that might undermine the integrity of its source. In fact, the fourteen-year-old catalog actioner looks so terrific, so utterly filmic and faithful to its original photography, that I'm surprised the term "DNR" -- broad and imprecise a catch-all abbreviation as ever -- is being bandied about at all. At no point does Blade appear to have been subjected to anything short of the utmost care. Softness is apparent here and there, but most every instance traces back to Theo van de Sande's blood-spattered cinematography, not some misguided tampering. Other imperfections abound as well, but none that Warner could have addressed without resorting to, you guessed it, misguided tampering. Grain is intact, present throughout and, above all, quite natural. Detail is excellent (and far more refined and revealing than I expected), fine textures are on full display,edges are clean and remarkably well-defined (without any substantial ringing), and delineation is excellent. Van de Sande's vampiric palette has been granted new life as well. Colors are stark but virile, primaries are bold and vivid (particularly reds), skintones are warm and lifelike (or cold and bloodless, depending on the species), black levels are rich and inky, and contrast, no matter the setting, day or night, rarely wavers. And the encode? I didn't catch sight of any eyesores; artifacting, banding, aliasing or otherwise. Yes, a few quirks plague some of the film's more problematic CG effects, but that can't be helped. For better or worse, in sickness and in health, this is Blade as it was meant to be seen and Blade as it should be remembered. I seriously doubt it could look much better.
Every time I watch Blade, I spend the next three weeks trying to get Pump Panel's infectious remix of New Order's "Confusion" out of my head. Even if you don't know either artist, you know the song. It's the acid techno anthem that pulses and pounds during the film's opening scene as Blade strolls into an underground blood rave to do what he does best. Alas, Warner's new DTS-HD Master Audio surround track is so much finely tuned fun that it probably increased that three-week window to a solid six weeks. And it isn't just "Confusion." Blade's techno-infused hip-hop soundtrack fills the soundfield with renewed vigor and drives the ensuing action with extreme prejudice. The rest of the soundscape follows suit. Gunfire, explosions, meaty impalements, pulpy eruptions and the arrival of La Magra take advantage of the LFE channel, amping up the power and presence of every creature, hunter and blood god on screen. The rear speakers leap into the fray as well, hurling stakes, bladed weapons, and syringes from channel to channel, scattering disintegrating vampire ashes to the winds, presenting the vamps as true soundfield predators, having a blast with the film's soundtrack, and creating a wonderfully immersive, three-dimensional experience as enveloping as it is involving. All the while, directional effects are generally precise and potent, channel pans are eerily transparent, and dynamics are dead on. And dialogue? Every last threat, outburst and battle cry is crystal clear, neatly prioritized and intelligible. Voices are a wee bit harder to discern in the midst of some of the film's more chaotic fights, but there's little else to gripe about. Blade may have aged less than gracefully, but you wouldn't know it from its lossless track.
Audio Commentary: While actor/producer Wesley Snipes, actor Steven Dorff, screenwriter David S. Goyer, producer Peter Frankfurt, production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli and cinematographer Theo van de Sande have been recorded separately, this is a smartly edited, wholly extensive, altogether engrossing commentary that leaves no stone unturned.
La Magra (SD, 14 minutes): New Line Cinema President of Production Michael de Luca, Frankfurt, Goyer and other key members of the crew provide a low-key overview of Blade's genesis (hinting at an early version starring L.L. Cool J), development, casting, production and its multiple endings. But the real treat here is an extended (albeit unfinalized) alternate ending that features a more literal blood god and a cameo by Marvel Comics vampire Morbius.
Designing Blade (SD, 22 minutes): Petruccelli and his team present dozens of pieces of concept art and production materials while discussing the look and atmosphere of the film, its set and costume designs, weapon design and swordplay, and its practical and visual effects.
Origins of Blade: A Look at Dark Comics (SD, 12 minutes): Goyer, Stan Lee and Wizard magazine's Gareb Shamus discuss the shift from brightly colored superheroes of the 1970s to the darker antiheroes of the '80s and '90s.
The Blood Tide (SD, 20 minutes): A look at blood's role in everything from theology to history, medicine, vampire lore and mythology, literature and beyond. It's a bit dry, but no less fascinating. Even if you find yourself slogging through Blade and its supplemental package, this one is worth watching.
There's so much to love about Blade... and yet so much to loathe. As a late-90s genre standout, it makes the most of what matters: Blade's clash with Frost, his relationship with Whistler, and the martial arts action-horror mashup Snipes and company were so eager to get off the ground. As a late-90s comicbook genre relic, though, it falls short of greatness and timelessness. Thankfully, Warner's Blu-ray release doesn't seem to care that Blade is flawed. Nor should it. It boasts a truly impressive video transfer, a pulse-pounding DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 surround track, and a humble but surprisingly extensive supplemental package, all of which justifies the cost of admission, and then some.
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