How Many Bites Until It Starts to Suck?

by Arthur B

The Blade series, at its peak, was awesome. How did it all go wrong?
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You wouldn’t have thought it if you’d only followed superhero movies for the last decade or so, but there was a time when Marvel were DC Comics’ poor cousins when it came to cinematic adaptations of their material. Whilst both of DC’s headline characters, Superman and Batman, had yielded more than adequate big screen adaptations, pretty much all of Marvel’s cinematic experiments - from 1977’s The Amazing Spider-Man to the unreleased low-budget 1994 version of The Fantastic Four (by way of Red Sonja, Howard the Duck and Dolph Lundgren’s version of The Punisher) were complete turkeys.

Of course, that’s all changed - between the Spiderman series (if you discount the third one), the X-Men series (if you discount the third one), the Iron Man series and others, Marvel have more than made up for the fumbled decades. And it all began with the Blade series, and the success of 1998’s first installment. Wesley Snipes as a martial arts half-vampire was a formula for box office success which made Marvel realise that, despite their poor track record, it was possible to produce decent films from the pages from their comics.

It also established the tradition that the third film in any Marvel-inspired series would be dreadful.

Blade


As far as comic characters go, Blade has one of the easier origin stories to film. Have his mother wheeled into a hospital, extremely pregnant and bleeding out from bitemarks on her neck. Establish that her baby was saved by the doctors. So long as you take the opportunity to expand on the gaps later on in the film that’s pretty much it - quick, simple, and no half hour of fucking about before the action starts.

Origin thereby dealt with in under a minute, Stephen Norrington then proves himself a worthy director (despite the horrors of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) by performing a trick many had thought impossible - incorporating a rave sequence into a genre film that doesn’t horrendously suck. Remember the rave in The Matrix Reloaded? Remember how it seemed goofy and out of place, and didn’t really serve any purpose except providing something for the Wachowskis to cut away to during the Neo/Trinity sex scene? This is pretty much the opposite, because not only does it set the tone for the film - silly, over-the-top, and not afraid of a little blood - but it also establishes the character of the subculture of vampires Blade is tangling with. They are young in outward appearance, hedonistic in their habits. They revel in their condition. They are cruel, and treacherous, and not above humiliating and brutalising their prey before feeding. Like cats, they like to play with and torment their food before killing it.

In other words, they’re nasty enough that we can cheer when Blade shows up and massacres them.

Not all of them though; having saved their human punching bag and killed all but one of the vampires, Blade leaves the organiser Quinn (Donal Logue) alive, though horrifyingly burned, in order to send a message to his master, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff). This plan goes awry when the police show up and have Quinn sent to the hospital - assuming, since he’s been burned to a crisp and showing no signs of life, that he’s dead. When he comes around at the hospital he escapes, but not before biting haematologist Doctor Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright), who is rescued by Blade and taken to recover at the hidden hideout he shares with Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), the aging biker who acted as a second father to Blade, helps him in his vampire-hunting tasks, and came up with the blood-based serum Blade uses to keep his predatory instincts in check. Having been exposed to the hidden vampire underworld, Jenson is of course at risk, and she soon turns her hand to studying the vampire menace - to create a more effective serum for Blade, to find a cure to prevent herself from turning into a vampire, and maybe to cook up a weapon or two against the vampires to boot.

Blade needs all the help he can get, however, because Frost, after being severely told off by the rest of the Camarilla vampire elders for his Masquerade-breaching raves, is intent on reasserting his authority, putting the other elders in their place, and exterminating Blade - and ancient vampire texts detailing how one can call on the services of the Blood God might give him exactly what he needs.

With secret conspiracies of vampires dominated by their elder kin and divided into clans, human cultists ("familiars") serving their vampire masters out of a sick sense of loyalty, and the tentacles of the elders’ power reaching into the hospitals and police department, Blade could be mistaken for another thinly-veiled World of Darkness ripoff if it weren’t for the character having first appeared in the comics in 1973. Then again, I’ve not followed the comics, so it’s always possible that the film might reflect seven years of Vampire influencing the comics (and the comics influencing Vampire). Either way, Blade is pretty much the only "it’s just like the World of Darkness!" movie out there which you could actually put your hand on your heart and say is a really good vampire film.

That’s not just because its only significant competition in that vein is Underworld and Van Helsing; Blade shows a level of genuine competence on the part of director, writer (David S. Goyer) and cast which those others just can’t match. For example, not only is the plot simply more interesting than Underworld’s, it actually deigns to come up with some interesting things to do with the vampire mythos aside from using pointy teeth to indicate one side in a bloodsuckers-vs-doggies war. Aside from the La Magra plot and the interesting anti-vampire weapons Jenson and Whistler cook up, the script uses the vampiric condition to come up with some properly interesting situations - Quinn waking up after being turned into barbecue is one, as is Pearl (Eric Edwards), a living (well, undead) example of exactly how massive a sedentary soul can get once they no longer have to worry about the physical limits of the human body.

By and large, the actors perfectly judge their performances. The dialogue isn’t Shakespeare, but they deliver it as though they believe in it and by and large get across what they intend to get across about their characters. Wright turns in the blandest performance early on - she’s intended to be the person who stumbles into Blade’s world and asks all the questions the audience need answers to - but she’s still able to hold up her end of the somewhat complicated relationship between her and Blade. From Blade’s point of view, she’s a woman in distress who looks just enough like his mother to bring back bad memories, and from her point of view Blade is a patient she’s taken responsibility for treating, and a fellow sufferer of the same condition that’s killing her, and maybe a little bit more on top of that. Both she and Snipes manage to make this work, though her task seems a bit more complicated than Snipes’.

Snipes is a badass with a sense of humour, which is precisely what every action hero strives to be but which most fail on one count or the other. His quips are well-timed, his fighting is believable, and he can turn on the emotional depth when it’s needed whilst finely judging exactly how tearful he can get without undermining his badassery. Dorff, meanwhile, plays Frost in a nicely overblown way, with just the right level of bullying arrogance to make you hate him in an enjoyable way.

Blade works mainly because it knows exactly what sort of film it wants to be - a cheesy comic book superhero film with an interesting story and lots and lots of blood - and all the participants want it to be that sort of film too.

Blade II


How do you make your horror-action sequel better than the original film? The producers of Blade II make a good start by hiring Guillermo del Toro to direct. Blade II was del Toro’s second Hollywood movie after Mimic, but he’d already proved himself a competent horror director with Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and the script - once again written by David S. Goyer - gives him plenty of licence to indulge his directorial trademarks - including grotesque monsters, bizarre makeup effects, and Ron Perlman.

After a surprising opening gambit involving a vampire-run blood bank which gets more than it bargains for when it tries to drain the wrong vagrant, the film wastes little time in getting the band back together: Blade attacks a vampire safehouse to liberate Whistler, who he had thought dead at the end of the first film but in fact had been abducted by vampires, and was slowly becoming a vampire himself. Once Blade has kicked sufficient ass to remind us how cool he is and restored Whistler’s humanity to him by making him go cold turkey from blood, Snipes and Kristofferson adeptly recapture the old chemistry between them - complicated by Blade’s recruitment of Scud (Norman Reedus), a hip young mechanic who Whistler instantly dislikes.

They don’t have time, however, before Blade is contacted by Eli Damaskinos, a major vampire elder - not to threaten him, but to recruit him. A man named Jared Nomak (Luke Goss) has taken to attacking vampire strongholds, driven by an urge to consume the blood of vampire themselves He’s the carrier of a new, mutant variety of the vampire virus, the Reaper strain which has transformed him into a predator capable of feeding on vampires and humans alike - but he has to feed much more frequently, and those he feeds on become new Reapers themselves. At the rate Nomak and his Reaper offspring feed, it won’t be long before they drive both vampires and humans to extinction, so Eli offers Blade a truce so they can join forces to bring him in - and to help Blade he gives him the command of the Blood Pack, a group of elite vampire commandos who had originally been brought together to hunt down and kill Blade.

It’s the introduction of the Blood Pack which really kicks the film into high gear. Just as they are using the mission as a chance to gather intelligence on Blade and his allies, so too is Blade using it to get to insights into them and the plans of the vampire elders, leading to all sorts of interesting betrayals and double-crosses as people’s loyalties shift. Blade finds his emnity towards vampires wavering as he begins to fall for Nyssa (Leonor Varela), Eli’s daughter, and is constantly butting heads with Reinhardt (Ron Perlman), to the poiint where he feels obliged to stick a bomb to the back of his head to keep him in line. Whistler, meanwhile, has to cope both with the mutual dislike between him and Scud and the emnity of Chupa (Matt Schulze), a vampire with a grudge against him - unsurprising, since Whistler has been in the vampire-hunting game for even longer than Blade.

Not all of the Blood Pack have 100% plot-critical roles, of course - Danny John-Jules seems to have been cast as Asad mainly because he’s got years of experience of acting with big fake fangs in his mouth, whilst Donnie Yen is rewarded for his help choreographing the fight scenes with a non-speaking role as Blood Pack swordsman Snowman. But even though not all of the Blood Pack members are important, all of them are at least interesting watch, which makes a change from the occasionally interchangable commando units that action heroes usually get to lead.

Having assembled a good cast and interesting characters, del Toro then delivers exactly the sort of exciting visual feast that we’ve come to expect from him. It’s not just a dry run for Hellboy, though - the horror basis of the story gives del Toro all the excuse he needs to unleash his goriest ideas, and he does so with gusto. The Reapers are an obvious standout - as is the sequence where one of them is autopsied - but del Toro’s firing on all cylinders throughout the entire film, even throwing in a nightclub scene that beats the first movie when it comes to excessive violence and gruesomeness. It’s thanks to his direction, Goyer’s script, and decent performances from the entire cast that Blade II improves on the first film in pretty much every respect - the acting’s better, the script is smarter, the action is more imaginative and the effects are fantastic. It’s easily the best in the series by a long way.

Also there’s one of the best "dude explodes into thousands of tiny chunks" effects I’ve ever seen - even better than the one in the second Rambo film.

Blade: Trinity


Trinity sees David S. Goyer not only writing the screenplay again, but also moving into the director’s seat. In that respect it’s not surprising that it’s not as good as Blade II - it was only the second time Goyer had directed a movie, and it would be nigh-miraculous for him to be able to pull off something comparable to Guillermo del Toro firing on all cylinders. But the problems run deeper than a rookie director.

It opens promisingly. A team of vampire commandos swoop into an ancient tomb in the Syrian desert and discover a monstrous ancient vampire buried there. It is, of course, none other than Dracula (Dominic Purcell), who consents to be taken away to the US and fed delicious people until he regains enough strength to lead vampirekind to greatness. Meanwhile, back in the States, Blade and Whistler are pulling off a raid on a clique of vampires - except one of them isn’t a vampire, he’s a human being wearing fake fangs, and Blade is caught killing him live on video by vampire conspirators who send the tape the authorities. As a consequence, the FBI swing into action, finally having the evidence they (and the vampire agents in their ranks) need to launch a full-scale manhunt for Blade.

So, once again there’s a decent premise - Blade has to fight Dracula but has to contend with the authorities’ new interest in his activities. Unfortunately, Goyer doesn’t quite manage to pull it off.

His first problem is one of his own making - this isn’t wholly a Blade film. Goyer also intended it to act as a means to introduce the Nightstalkers, another team of vampire hunters from Marvel’s roster, represented in the film by Hannibal King (Ryan Reynolds) and Abigail (Jessica Biel), Whistler’s daughter, and a collection of support characters who don’t get to do very much. The consequence of this is that Goyer dispenses with one of the major advantages of making a superhero movie sequel: the ability to avoid wasting time on origin stories for the protagonist. Look at The Dark Knight or Spiderman 2 - two movies which improve over their predecessors by the fact that they don’t have to fuck around introducing the main hero to us and covering his origins.

Having thrown the Nightstalkers into the mix, Goyer has to find something for them to do, so he comes up with the idea that they’ve cooked up a plague which will exterminate all vampires on Earth - they just need a sample of Dracula’s blood to make it. On top of that, Goyer has the Nightstalkers pick up Wesley Snipes’ slack; I think there’s actually more fight scenes with them in this film than with Blade, and there’s one bit (where they are getting Blade out of police headquarters) where Blade basically disappears so he doesn’t get in the way of them kicking ass.

It’s good that they get plenty of opportunities to do that though, because the film only really comes alive when people are punching, chasing, or shooting at other people. Every time Goyer shoots a scene where people stand around talking to each other the film loses every shred of momentum it establishes in the action scenes. There are too many odd, quiet scenes with sparse dialogue delivered in a really flat way, often with little to no background music or ambient noise, which stick out like a sore thumb mainly because they seem unfinished somehow - as though they forgot to put the background music in, or Goyer neglected to update his first draft of the script, or the actors didn’t really put their hearts into it but Goyer couldn’t be bothered to do another take. Except in the action sequences, nobody involved in this can seem to be bothered to act - Snipes in particular seems extremely grumpy, and likewise Kris Kristofferson doesn’t seem to be having any fun, and when your two lead players aren’t getting into it you know you have serious problems. The most emotional scene in the film involves Biel weeping on the floor cradling the dead body of one of the slain Nightstalkers, whilst Blade stands in the background loudly saying “USE IT” over and over again, which is exactly as daft as it sounds.

The villains aren’t much more interesting either - Dracula snarls a lot and doesn’t seem to have any real personality, whilst his head henchpires, Danica and Asher Talos (Parker Posey and Callum Keith Rennie) aren’t exactly much more interesting. Parker Posey, in particular, is distracting for all the wrong reasons - I think the makeup department gave her overly large fangs, so she has trouble keeping her mouth shut when she’s not talking and when she does talk the fangs occasionally get in the way. Speaking of the makeup department, this has to be the absolute least accomplished Blade movie when it comes to special effects and costuming; aside from occasional bits with Dracula transforming into his monstrous form and the inclusion of some mutant doggies, gone are the awesome creature effects that del Toro brought to the table, and the sudden disappearance of said awesomeness really does show.

It has to be said that Blade: Trinity was made at a pretty crazy part of Wesley Snipes’ career - before his dubious tax situation blew up in his face, before a bizarre spell in which he was flying around Africa using a fake South African passport spouting discredited anti-tax conspiracy theories, before he was criminally convicted for his part in the tax issues, before he ended up working the same dark pit of straight-to-DVD action schlock that Steven Seagal was condemned to after Half Past Dead. Hollywood Bitchslap put out a pretty damning - if one-sided - writeup of conditions on the Trinity set which puts a lot of the blame on Snipes’ shoulders, but to be honest I think there’s a chicken and egg situation going on here. I can completely believe that Snipes and Kristofferson were annoyed at their characters’ roles being played down for the sake of the Nightstalkers, prompting them to feel grumpy and uncooperative, and I can completely believe that Goyer found Snipes and Kristofferson difficult to work with, prompting him to play up the Nightstalkers’ role in the film. Which came first is in some ways unimportant - if a dynamic like that developed on-set, then you’d get a nasty feedback loop which would result in a film pretty much exactly like this one - a muddled and uninspiring failure that doesn’t quite succeed at any of the half-dozen different things it was trying to do, stuffed with actors who would rather be anywhere else in the world.

The Bottom Line


Blade and Blade II are both good - the second one is better by a fair way, but the first one is also plenty of fun. But don’t bother with Trinity: it’s not even amusingly bad, it’s just dull and miserable, in the sort of way that only a film that every single participant has quietly given up on can be dull and miserable.
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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 10:25 on 2010-07-26
It also established the tradition that the third film in any Marvel-inspired series would be dreadful.

Isn't there a tendency for the third film in a series to be a bit pants, Marvel-inspired or not?
Arthur B at 10:41 on 2010-07-26
There's a tendency, but it's not always the case. Whereas with Marvel it's like an unwavering law or something.
Andy G at 16:58 on 2010-07-26
I haven't yet seen it, but Toy Story 3 has supposedly bucked the trend.

Also Return of the King, but that's not really the same thing because it was basically part 3 of a single film.
Viorica at 17:23 on 2010-07-26
Out of curiosity, have you watched the Blade TV series? It lasted about a year before the plug got pulled (leaving viewers with a cliffhanger, alas) but I enjoyed it while it lasted.
Arthur B at 17:46 on 2010-07-26
I haven't yet, but I intend to at some point. Thanks for confirming that it's worth tracking down. :)

@Andy: I'm with you with Return of the King. Day of the Dead isn't in the same league as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, but it's miles better than the competition. And of course my favourite Resident Evil film is the third...
Rami at 20:10 on 2010-07-26
I haven't yet seen it, but Toy Story 3 has supposedly bucked the trend.
Oh yes. Toy Story 3 was great :-)
Dan H at 00:05 on 2010-07-27
The general rule with threes is that they're either the worst part of the series (every marvel trilogy ever made) or the best (Indiana Jones, Back to the Future).
Andy G at 00:31 on 2010-07-27
Whereas for DC Comics it's usually the fourth.
Arthur B at 00:13 on 2010-11-20
Update: it looks like Snipes is finally going to jail over his minor tax problem (the problem being that he doesn't pay taxes). Given that his accounting issues exploded at around the time of Blade Trinity it seems to have taken an insanely long time for him to actually go to jail, but I suppose that's how Hollywood justice works.
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