DT Moviehouse Review: Blade

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review Marvel’s first ever comic book movie hit, Blade.

(1998) Directed by Stephen Norrington

Screenplay by David S. Goyer


The power of an immortal. The soul of a human. The heart of a hero.


What It’s About:

bladepose“You better wake up! The world you live in is just a sugar coated topping. There is another world beneath it – the real world.” In the real world, immortal vampires enjoy a parasitic relationship with mortal man, controlling the population through their puppet police force and world governments. Standing against the bloodsuckers is Eric “Blade” Brooks (Wesley Snipes). After his mother was attacked by a vampire while he was in the womb, Blade was born with superhuman vampiric abilities, but none of the selfsame weaknesses, aside from a growing hunger to consume blood, which he suppresses with the help of his grizzled partner, weapons designer and serum synthesizer, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). When Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorf) an ambitious young vampire revolutionary, sets out to overthrow the elder hierarchy and call up La Magra, an ancient vampire deity to throw back the curtain and rule humanity outright, Blade enlists the help of Dr. Karen Jensen (N’Bushe Wright), a blood expert unwillingly thrust into the action.

Why I Bought It:

It’s fitting that the first comic book movie to show up on the review list is Blade. Without the success of Blade, there would be no Spider-Man, no X-Men, no Iron Man, no Avengers franchises.

frost!Blade was Marvel’s first big hit. The first of its characters to successfully transition to the big screen and the first Marvel film to earn a theatrical release. Prior attempts at getting Captain America, The Fantastic Four, and The Punisher to audiences resulted in direct to video US releases, mainly forgettable.

What’s so unlikely, is that Marvel took an obscure character from the 70’s (Blade was created by Gene Colan and Marv Wolfman to be part of the crew that hunts Dracula in the Tomb of Dracula title), made him a headliner in an R-rated action horror movie, and came away with a pretty sizable success. This wasn’t Spider-Man or The Punisher, this was Blade. Blade!  It’s like making a Robin movie without ever having a Batman flick, or putting out a picture about The Wonder Twins.

OK, not that unlikely, but pretty unlikely.

But Blade, despite all its got going against it, remains one of the coolest comic book movies of all time.

Every time I rewatch Blade I’m giddy with how much I still enjoy it. I didn’t see it in the theater. It looked like a rental to me. But it grabs you right from the beginning with its super rain slicked visuals and frenetic Hong Kong style action, its nifty CGI (I was really wowed by the disintegrating vampires when I first caught this) and driving, ultra-cool soundtrack.

bladeWesley Snipes looks like he’s having a great time in this one. Before Blade, I only knew him from Jungle Fever, Sugar Hill, Mo Better Blues, and New Jack City, and even though I was aware of Passenger 57, I thought it was a bump in the road in the career of a mainly serious actor. But watching this, I can see Snipes’ fondness for this role in his performance, a barely contained nerdiness that escapes now and then in his impromptu fist pumps and certain comic book-y expressions. Blade is an extremely physical role. He barely has any lines, but he arrests your attention whenever he’s on screen.

bladeduelI can picture Snipes as a wide-eyed kid haunting Chinese video stores for those awesome blurry videos with the barely readable white subtitles and the too large clamshell cases in a carefully ironed coolie shirt.  The guy loves kung fu movies, loves martial arts (became a practitioner at age 12), and it shows in his performance, in the little physical homages he does. Several of Blade’s dismissive, sort of “bitch, please” expressions remind me of Bruce Lee, and there are moments during the fight sequences where I see Jackie Chan in his reactions, Jet Li, Jim Kelly and the Run Run Shaw gang in his stances and poses. I read somewhere that it was Snipes’ great ambition to star in a movie with Jackie Chan, and I wish now he’d got his chance. I’ll bet he was ready to roundhouse kick his TV over when the Rush Hour movies were announced.

Add to that the fact that Snipes is breaking ground portraying the world’s first cinematic African American superhero (Spawn doesn’t count for me – he was masked most of the time, and please don’t try to bring up Meteor Man), and yeah, there’s a barely perceptible but definite kid in a candy store vibe to Snipes in Blade.

iceskateBut make no mistake, Blade is a total badass, so monumentally skilled and high powered that his swagger is totally deserved (“Quinn. I’m gettin’ real tired of cuttin’ you up.”), and instead of dropping a lot of dumb one-liners, when the chips are down, he speaks with his actions. I love the scene where Quinn (Donal Logue), wearing Blade’s sunglasses, giddily announces the latest regrowth of his hand (Blade has chopped them both off at various times) and dances in place with a knife. “I got two new hands, Blade, and I don’t know which one I’m gonna kill you with!” He lunges forward and Blade’s only answer is to spin, neatly decapitating him with a length of concealed razor wire, and reclaim his sunglasses as they fall.  Maybe there’s something of the alternate definition of blade in his name, that of the dashing youth with implied panache and style, I don’t know – but he’s got it in spades. uphillThe ending is off the chain ridiculous, with Blade performing several unbelievably timed and executed tricks, throwing his booby trapped sword into a stone crack, catching the coagulant stuff behind his back, and not being content to just toss them with proven deadly accuracy at Frost, he actually tosses one in the air and roundhouse kicks it into Frost’s forehead. But screw it, this is Blade, and more, it’s blood supercharged Blade. You can believe he’s capable of it.

blade%20whistlerKris Kristofferson as Whistler, Blade’s limping, unshaven mentor and right hand guy behind the guy is great, delivering macho lines like “Catch you fuckers at a bad time?” in this great Harley ridin’ gravelly growl that I love to imitate (and am only capable of aping) when I’m struck with a chest cold.  He spends most of the movie like a frowning old spider in the center of this sparking machine shop web of workbenches and toolkits, metal shelving and jury rigged weaponry. Yet there are cool moments between him and Blade that elevate him above a hollow stereotype.  There’s an unspoken fatherliness and mutual respect, when he injects Blade with his serum and grips his hand as he convulses, yet looks away, allowing Blade his dignity. And when Frost leaves Whistler a bloody, dying mess, Blade betrays no emotion, yet mops at the copious blood bootlessly and with the tenderness of a son attending his father’s death bed as Whistler groans his last words.

bladenbusheThe gorgeous N’Bushe Wright (who I first had a crush on in Zebrahead) provides a little more than eye candy in her portrayal of Dr. Jensen, who is early on bitten by the vampire Quinn and nursed back from the edge of turning by a combination of Blade and Whistler and her own ingenuity. She’s a cool, nominally romantic foil to Blade, doesn’t really swoon overly, and gets herself out of a jam now and then, dispatching the wonderfully otherworldly and decadent Mercury (Arly Jover).  She even provides Blade with the impetus to beat the bad guys in the end, offering her own blood. There is some weird Oedipal stuff going on, admittedly. When Blade first decides to try and save her, she is interposed with a shot of Blade’s mother (the stunning Sanaa Lathan) reaching out to him from the delivery room table, and Jensen’s offering of blood and Blade’s ravenous partaking is almost filmed psychosexually. He thrusts his hungry mouth at her, devouring her, and it almost looks like breastfeeding gone horribly wrong. Her interplay with her ex-boyfriend Webb (Tim Guinee) is great, and I absolutely love the abrupt tonal shift when Webb is attacked by the burned to a crisp and presumed dead Quinn on the autopsy table. It’s very indicative of the film’s tone that as these two characters begin to have a believable romantic tiff and the plot starts to sag a bit into familiar expository territory, suddenly a corpse sits up and takes a bite out of one of them.

La_Magra_(Earth-26320)Stephen Dorff’s antagonist Deacon Frost is a cool counterpoint in physicality and attitude to Blade. He looks like some posing clubgoer, and even the vampire elders dismiss him (gotta mention Udo Kier and Judson – Joaquin from Star Trek II – Scott appear as old money purebloods). He talks a lotta smack and appears to party a lot, but in fact he’s got this cold, reptilian demeanor that betrays his ambition. As his minions cavort and dance, he’s shown obsessing over the computer translation of the vampire bible, burning the candle at both ends. Stephen Dorff has nothing on Wesley Snipes in terms of physique, but he’s still deadly in the climactic duel, and when he’s infused with La Magra it’s like watching a cobra and a mongoose go at it.  Though he walks around in the daylight under heavy skin crème and looks like something out of Twilight, make no mistake, Frost is totally gangster, proving his monsterhood in a cool scene when he executes Udo Kier with the dawn and tosses his fangs on the board room table to make his point to the rest of the elders.

blade-1998-the%20bad%20guysI already mentioned Arly Jover. Mercury’s a white clad skinny as a rail vampire with an untraceable accent, vaguely eastern European, vaguely Irish, and comes across as a White Queen on heroin, visually fascinating to watch and scary as hell.  I maintain that more comic actors should be cast as villains, because Donal Togue’s Quinn is a great character. He loves being a vampire, but is a bon vivant and a coattail rider. He and Dorf have their own brand of fun, ad-libbing some great exchanges like “I’m gonna be naughty. I’m gonna be a naughty vampire god.” And that whole bit where Frost pretends he’s going to cut off Quinn’s hand. Clearly Quinn amuses Frost, as I can’t see why else he’d be allowed to stick around.

The soundtrack for Blade was a big hit, if I remember, the blazing hip hop and electronica complimenting the crazily stylized story perfectly. Particular standouts for me were the opening number, heard in the trailers, the Japanese schoolgirl rap at the vampire club, and that end track that kicks in after Blade catches the sunglasses. It gives the furious action a video game feel that gets me grinning.  I also like the simple pulsing track that plays when Blade and Jensen trail Officer Krieger (Kevin Patrick Walls) through the night time streets in their cars, a sequence Norrington shoots in fast motion, lending it a cool, nightmarish quality.

Best Dialogue/Line:

“Some motherfucker’s always tryin’ to ice skate uphill.”

Best Scene:

bloodbath-realzThe initial scene, the one that pulls you right into the world of Blade.  A dopey clubgoer (Elliot James) rides in a hot car with an even hotter chick (Traci Lords), who takes him (and the audience) to this super secret club located behind a meat packing company (were those bodies in the plastic?). She throws the dork her coat and leaves him standing there, and he drops it and tries to get in on the party, but the beautiful but slightly weird dancers reject him at every turn and eye him with all the disdain of a bunch of Hamptonites whose party’s just been crashed by ‘Ol Dirty Bastard. He wanders through the strobing lights, ogling the dancing bodies and finally reunites with his ride, who is dancing seductively with Mercury. When he tries to cut in, he’s shoved away.

This sucks he thinks, and as the music reaches a fever pitch, he mutters something about needing a drink. Suddenly the house lights go up, the DJ roars in front of a banner reading BLOODBATH! and after wiping a spot of red from his cheek, the guy looks up in time to see the overhead emergency sprinklers douse the crowd and him in human blood.

Horrified, he recoils, desperate to find the exit, and each of the partiers starts popping fangs and vamping out. Stumbling away from horrors at every turn, he tries to run, but is laid out by a punch from some shirtless vampire and falls to the bloodsoaked floor, where he’s kicked and pummeled. The sprinklers drained, the music dies down and the crowd applauds and cheers, some holding up bottles to catch the drippings. Slipping to get away, the one lone human crawls towards some clean whiteness, an abbatoir shower or something for the slaughterers, and a big black boot comes into frame.

blade-1aHe looks up, and the entire crowd of suckheads crouches like wary dogs and backpedals, parting to reveal Blade standing motionless, uncaring of the crimson painted vampires creeping out of his wake, and only nominally concerned by the crowd of the undead milling behind him (“It’s him!” “Daywalker!”).

Blade waits for the inevitable as the music reaches a lull.

But as if on cue, when it starts back up again, somebody kicks it off, rushing forward, and what follows is a frantic one against many battle that perfectly introduces the character of Blade. His fearlessness, his weaponry, his attitude.

If you can watch this scene and want to turn this movie off, yeah, it’s not for you.

Would I Buy It Again?

Yes. But you won’t see the other Blade movies on here, unfortunately. Blade 2 couldn’t touch this movie with its screechy Predator-faced vamps, and besides Ryan Reynolds’ creative cursing in Blade Trinity, it’s a snoozer.

Next In The Queue: The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

DT Back Issues: The ‘Nam

1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80’s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s take on THE SHADOW, THE LAST AMERICAN, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.

Are ya with me?

OK, so I’m instituting a new feature here on Delirium Tremens, DT BACK ISSUES. Like DT MOVIEHOUSE, it’ll probably be infrequent, but it’ll give you something to read about besides Merkabah Rider, the Van Helsing Papers, Buff Tea, and anything else writerly I’ve got coming down the pipe.

thenam1And right now, having just finished re-reading the entire seven year run (or most of it – turned out I was short about four issues towards the end), Marvel Comics’ THE ‘NAM.

Assistant Editor Tim Tuohy, in his introduction to the final letter’s page of the series, said THE ‘NAM was referred to as “The Great Experiment” around the Marvel offices.

What an inventive and daring experiment it was! Larry Hama of GI JOE and Doug Murray came up with the idea of doing a realistic comic book about the Vietnam War, not a Sgt. Fury or Sgt. Rock actioner, but a real deal straightforward, grunt’s eye view of the war. Further, it would be told in real time, meaning when a month passed between issues, a month passed for the characters in the book. Given that a tour of duty in Vietnam lasted one year in the 60’s, that meant after twelve issues, the characters introduced in the first issue would rotate back to the United States, and a whole new cast would take over the story.

America was a little Vietnam crazy in the 80’s, and me being 12 years old in 1987 when I picked up my first issue (#11 – just LOOK at that cover! How could I pass up such a great looking book?), I was no different.

favoritecoverRambo was the most famous Vietnam vet, and it seemed like every cool, moody character in comics and film had a background in the war. The Punisher, even Stalker, Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and Scarlet from GI JOE had been to Indian Country (no surprise, given Hama was a vet).

And some time around that year, my buddy Ricardo leant me a VHS copy of Platoon, and the movie just blew me away.

I was gung ho for Vietnam. I wanted to learn everything about the VC and POW’s, M-60’s, Hueys, and humpin’ the boonies. So I picked up The ‘Nam #10 and #11 at my local comic shop.

It was the issue right after a major character and the best friend and mentor of the at the time main character Ed Marks had been killed. It opened with Ed drinking his sorrows away at the post bar while his friends worried over him, and then depicted an action in Saigon with US grunts acting as liaisons with South Vietnamese police.

To my eleven/twelve year old mind, it was totally baffling, and yet engrossing. Like Ed, I had no idea what the heck was going on. I was thrust into this strange world where absolutely nothing was explained. A civilian opened fire on a Vietnamese politician and the police responded by lighting up a crowd with machinegun fire. What had happened? Ed demanded to know, but he got no answers, so neither did I. In another scene, Ramnarain, one of the other soldiers, is shown selling something to a guy on the street. When Ed asks what he thinks he’s doing, Ramnarain’s response is “Just trying to make a little P.” What? Was he making fun of Ed? I had no idea. The lingo was as dense as the storyline. Most comics would have the little asterisks at the bottom of the panel explaining everything or the writing would put the word in such a context that you could figure out the meaning. Not so in The ‘Nam.

At the end of the book I discovered a handy lexicon with definitions of all the slang and military terms (P is money, of course), and letters from actual Vietnam vets and kids like me both expressing their admiration for the first ten issues and lamenting the death of somebody called Mike.

thenamambushAdding to the uniqueness of THE ‘NAM was its art, which I now recognize as being just glorious, a perfect, but to me (at the time) unheard of melding of cartoon/caricature human figures and astoundingly accurate and detailed equipment and backgrounds. Just look at the exaggerated figures. It’s the same kind of reality-disconnect you experience seeing Roger Rabbit interacting with Bob Hoskins, but here, it jars you, puts you a bit on edge. The characters look too pleasant to do each other violence. Then an orphan kid in line at a dinner sponsored by the Army pulls a grenade out from under his shirt and blows a GI into chuck.

This was the art of Michael Golden, a guy whose other work I’m not familiar with, but keep meaning to hunt up. His tenure ended not long after my own readership began (actually in the eleventh issue, I think).

The book was taken over by Wayne Vansant. A lot of people complained that his work presaged a drop in quality, but I disagree. He may not have been as stunning as Golden, but his art still fit the book like a combat boot, and he did the lion’s share of the work on it, mostly unsung, for a number of years, barring a few guest stints. Around the same time the book went from newsprint to a higher quality paper. This made for more vibrant colors that showcased Vansant’s work, but I think, tamed the book just a tad. The murk of newsprint had stood in for the haze of combat, the mystery of a place where anyone could decide to turn on you at any moment, and only the guys in OD Green beside you could be counted on  (and sometimes not even them).

untitledTrue to its promise, the characters rotated out, and new characters were brought in. Unfortunately this fascinating method of storytelling was abandoned, sometime around the infamous issue #41 or thereafter, and we never found out what happened to a lot of the guys like Andy and Daniels, Light, and the old timer Martini that had grandfathered in from the Korean War.

superheroes#41 was said to be an attempt to boost sales. It featured The Avengers on the cover, bursting through a map of Vietnam and proclaiming “GUESS WHO’S BEEN DRAFTED?” (look at the little HUH? bubble sprouting out of the GI in the upper left hand corner – was that Doug Murray himself?)

It turned a lot of people off, obviously. I don’t think Doug Murray would’ve done this story unless somebody higher up in Marvel were leaning on him, but on the other hand, I also think that anybody who dismissed THE ‘NAM because of this issue probably saw this in a catalog or on the shelf and scoffed without reading it.

The Avengers don’t REALLY invade Vietnam. How this  all came about was, in a previous issue, a misfit private named Aeder had joined the unit (which I should mention, was the 23rd Infantry). Aeder was not a good soldier and didn’t fit in well with the others. Plus, he was constantly reading comic books. A few issues prior to #41 he developed a relationship at the local ville with a Vietnamese girl, and was often being caught by Ice Phillips (the squad’s sergeant) AWOL. One one such excursion, VC guerillas burst into Aeder’s girl’s home while they were lying in bed, and gunned them both down.

In #41, Phillips is about to catch his chopper home, it being the end of his tour. Martini walks in and finds him sitting on Aeder’s cot, going through his old comics. They imagine what the war would be like if superheroes existed and could intervene. That’s it. It’s all Phillips and Martini just smoking and flipping through funnybooks, imagining. No big deal.

Subsequent letters columns EXPLODED with negative feedback on the issue, but re-reading it, it really made me wonder if anybody had read the thing. I was not offended  by it in the least. In the end, Murray lasted as the writer only another ten issues before the second attempt by Marvel to bolster sales of the book with a universe crossover happened.

punishernamThis was #52, Part I of “The Punisher Invades The ‘Nam.”

This one was well received, and generally, it made more sense. As I mentioned, Frank Castle was already established in his own book as a Vietnam vet. What we saw in this two parter was kind of a prequel to the Punisher, with Marine Corps sniper Frank Castiglione taking on a VC super sniper. A bit into the Sgt Rock mode, but not a bad story.

When it was over though, Murray had been replaced by Chuck Dixon, who abandoned the pre-established real time model and left the 23rd altogether to hop all over Vietnam and tell the stories he wanted to write. He opened with one of the best story arcs of the series, a five parter called The Death Of Joe Hallen, about a Marine’s return home, his disillusionment with the world, his return to Vietnam, and his eventual metaphoric ‘death,’ really a death of spirit. At the end of the arc, Hallen isn’t killed, but after his attempted murder of a fellow soldier (a junkie private named Roeder who mistakenly shot and killed Hallen’s friend as they were coming out of the jungle) is stopped by a couple of MP’s, he is dishonorably discharged and sent off to prison.

After a very slight lag in quality in Murray’s final issues (mostly the look of the book by a couple of fill in artists), the book experienced a renaissance, with Dixon really pulling out the stops. He even revisited the classic squad lineup of the first twelve issues, showing what they were doing (Ed Marks was a war correspondent, Sgt. Polkow a cop, etc). Of these, the biggest and best surprise was Ramnarain, the wheeling and dealing disgruntled private who was last seen when he was captured by the VC some forty issues previously. In a two part story in 59 and 60, a downed pilot is put into a POW camp and steadfastly refuses all attempts at interrogation by the camp commandant. By night he confides with another prisoner, talking through the wall about home, his experiences, etc. The next day the Vietnamese commandant gleefully throws all the info he shared with the GI in the pilot’s face, and as he is dragged out by the guards, the pilot curses the GI for passing information. The guards open the GI’s cell, revealing Ramnarain. Then they pick him up and carry him out. Both legs and an arm have been amputated.

tunnelratDid I mention this book was telling its stories under the seal of the Comics Code?

Yeah. Yet it still managed to deal with issues of racism, drugs, prostitution, CIA torture, civilian massacre, the murder of incompetent superior officers by troops (fragging), the self-immolation of Buddhist monks, the protest movement back home, and the general climate of chaos of the war. Twice, it even told its tales from the point of view of the Vietnamese, ARVN (South Vietnamese Army), NVA (North Vietnamese) and VC guerillas.

There are really too many memorable issues to talk about in depth. Most everybody remembers the Tunnel Rat issue, in which a GI explores a VC tunnel complex and winds up getting trampled by a horde of rats. There was another Punisher storyline (a third was planned and released after the book was cancelled at #84), issues about the American withdrawal and abandonment of its southern Vietnamese allies, and a couple backup stories set at home where a group of the old characters banded together to find their old crooked Top Sergeant who had gone bad in the real world and murdered one of their little brothers in a drug deal (though Dixon slightly effed the continuity up a bit, ignoring the fact that Top had returned to Vietnam after his initial arrest on bribery charges….also at one point Ice Phillips was inexplicably called Ice Eisenman).

littlebrotherTHE ‘NAM opened up the war to me in ways no history book or class ever has, to the point where I learned even more on my second read through.  Originally billed as an eight year limited series, it missed its goal by only twelve issues, succumbing at last to flagging sales and the gatefold foil covers of its competitors.

The INCOMING letters column was as educational as the book itself, and hosted spirited debates between combat veterans and war protestors, provided service information for vets and served as a bulletin board for comrades looking to reunite with old buddies, or sons and daughters looking to hear from anybody who had known the loved ones they’d lost. At times the letters printed were more emotional and moving than any fiction Murray or Dixon or any of the other writers ever came up with.

It really was an important comic book, a total anomaly in any collection. 84 issues offering a holistic, illustrated view of a war most schools won’t teach you anything about.

In the last INCOMING, Lizabeth Collier, who I believe was a frequent writer to the back pages, closed out the series saying;

“Don’t allow yourselves and your work to walk off the scene, forgotten. For now, my thanks for your work.”

I couldn’t say it any better.