When I first watched “Blade” on VHS in 1998/99, I had already begun my love of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” so the adaptation of the Marvel comic book vampire hunter fell somewhat flat for me compared to Buffy’s quick wit and savvy storytelling; it also didn’t help that the film felt too long. I opted out of the next two films in the franchise, although I’ve been tempted into watching “Blade II” given it’s directed by the great Guillermo Del Toro, and got better reviews than it’s predecessor. Now, however, we’re year 16 into a massive Marvel domination at the box-office, and the way those films have resonated with me, for the most part, puts “Blade” in a different context than when I watched it originally. Now that reports have come up that Wesley Snipes is game for bringing the character into the official Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s time to see whether the film plays better for me than it did 18 years ago.
Stephen Norrington’s film is very much a comic adaptation origin story, as we start by seeing Blade’s mother, Vanessa (Sanaa Lathan), wheeled into the emergency room while pregnant in 1967. Blood is gushing; she has been bitten by an unknown creature. The baby, Blade, is saved while the mother dies. Cut to 30 years later, and we watch a couple drive to an underground club for a rave. As the guy is soon to figure out, though, this isn’t an ordinary party; these partygoers have a particular taste for blood. As he fights to break free, Blade (Wesley Snipes) shows up, and starts dispatching the vampires until only one, the cocksure Quinn (Donal Logue), remains. Before he can finish off Quinn, though, the police show up, and Blade exits, going back to the garage/training facility of his mentor, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), but not before tracking Quinn down at the hospital (where the police have taken his severely burned body) and having to rescue a hematologist named Karen (N’Bushe Wright) after she’s been bitten by Quinn. Meanwhile, we meet the vampire who ran the rave at the beginning, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), who is out of step with the older, pure blood vampires at the House of Erebus, but he has something in the works that will show them how worthy he is to be apart of their power ranks.
The screenplay by David S. Goyer (who was coming off of the much-maligned “The Crow: City of Angels”) is a serviceable origin tale, with just enough twists to maintain interest, but despite the attempts at humor with Blade, Snipes’s delivery falls flat. He’s always been great with the physical necessities of a role, but as a comic performer, he’s very much dependent on the material (and director) he’s working with, and both Norrington and the script fail him. This shouldn’t be a de facto comedy like “Iron Man” or “The Avengers,” but some levity would help the proceedings be more entertaining than they are, because Dorff doesn’t cut it comedically, and Logue’s Quinn is too one-note to deliver the goods. Of course, since Goyer also wrote relatively humorless screenplays like “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” is the years after “Blade” came out, this criticism should hardly be surprising, but with a performer who can deliver comedy like Snipes (remember “White Men Can’t Jump?”), you would think “Blade” might have been able to balance serious storytelling with some humor. The issue may not be with Goyer alone, though, as Norrington (who later directed the dreadful “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” adaptation in 2003, and hasn’t made a film since) seems overly serious himself as a filmmaker. He can stage sequences well, and directs action capably (although the visual effects did seem dated in this film), but nuanced storytelling feels lost on him, although at least Kristofferson feels interested in giving this material depth, as he and Snipes play off each other well. Dramatically, though, the film is merely average compared to the likes of the first “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” and certainly the official MCU origin stories we’ve gotten. Watching it again, though, I liked it a lot more than I first did, and am not looking forward to watching Del Toro’s follow-up after this film hooked me with the character, at long last.