Yesterday, The Culture Tsar came across a Sonny Bunch article in the Washington Post reminding everyone waiting to write articles about the upcoming Black Panther being the first superhero movie to feature an African American protagonist that Blade accomplished this milestone almost twenty years ago. Actually, as Bunch later points out, even that isn’t accurate given that Spawn came out a few years before Blade. In any case, it’s a good article on the topic and you should definitely read it, but The Culture Tsar is more interested in talking about Blade.
Why? Because Blade and Blade II are fucking great.
Seriously, Blade is one of the most underrated action movies of the 1990s. The action is great, the story is well constructed, and the characters are memorable. It’s not a movie that tries to reinvent film. From a technical and narrative standpoint, Blade is a pretty conventional action movie about a hero learning to come to terms with who he is in order to prevail over the forces of evil. The script is good, but not great, and a lot of the film’s vampire mythology is rather derivative. But Blade rises above all of that for two reasons. First of all, the filmmakers treated the material with respect, consistency, and care. Blade never descends into camp, but it also never takes itself so seriously that it forgets to have fun. It strikes the same delicate balance that the Marvel Studios films would eventually perfect with the original Iron Man. If you think this is an easy task, go back and watch the first two X-Men films, which feel ponderously self-important in retrospect.
The other reason Blade works is far easier to understand: Wesley Snipes. Easily the most underrated action star of his era, Snipes is also an underrated actor by pretty much any objective measure. Seriously, name a movie where Wesley Snipes didn’t light up the screen in every scene he was it.
Go ahead, think about it. The Culture Tsar will wait…
Right, you can’t think of one. That’s because Wesley Snipes has more on-screen charisma than 95% of his contemporaries. He still holds one of the top spots in The Culture Tsar’s Action Movie Villain List (the one I just made up right now) for his electric role as Simon Phoenix in Demolition Man. And before you dismiss him as just being a good action movie star, remember that this is the same guy who went all out playing a drag queen in 1995’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
Anyway, Snipes is awesome in Blade. Part of it is the physicality, of course. There was always something special about Snipes’s martial arts work that felt more brutal and real than that of his contemporaries. In a lot of ways, he was a preview of the type of cinematic fighting that became commonplace thanks to the Bourne series. But more importantly, Snipes understood how important it is to embody the visual essence of a comic book character. His movements and facial expressions always look like they could be ripped straight from a comic panel. A big part of Blade’s appeal is that he just looks cool, and Snipes absolutely nails that aspect of the character.
The movie also benefits from a sneaky great performance by Kris Kristofferson. I have no idea why on Earth Kris Kristofferson wanted to be in this movie, but it wasn’t simply for the paycheck because he sells the hell out of it. There’s an amazing little snippet where he sloppily spills gasoline all over Blade’s car while he’s filling the tank, then leans against the car and lights a cigarette. It’s a tiny moment, but it’s memorable and hilarious, the type of thing that makes Blade such an endearing and enjoyable movie.
Blade II is probably a better film, although some of the visual effects don’t hold up terribly well. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Blade II oozes style and features one of the most terrifying vampires ever put to film. Snipes is again fantastic as Blade despite having a bit less to work with from the script. The movie is more about the people around Blade than Blade himself, so there’s not as much of a character arc for him to go through. It doesn’t matter, though. Snipes is so good at playing off the other actors that you barely notice Blade is pretty much the same character by the end of the movie. Speaking of the rest of the cast, there’s a great performance by Ron Perlman, who plays a neo-Nazi skinhead vampire. In retrospect, it’s a rather weird and daring movie that you can’t see the Marvel Studios brain trust of today making.
Then there’s Blade: Trinity. Something something something, sequel exhaustion, inexperienced director, something something something.
As we all get excited for Black Panther, The Culture Tsar thinks everyone would do well to heed Bunch’s advice and rewatch Blade and Blade II. They’re not perfect films and some aspects of them haven’t aged very well (which is typical for late 90s/early 00s movies), but they’re great fun and absolutely worth your time.