15 July 2017

Review: Blade II

(Dir: Guillermo del Toro, 2002)

It's been fifteen whole years since Blade II was released, and in the intervening time we've still not seen any character quite like Blade. Lest we forget this is a Marvel character, unleashed upon the world in 1998, a full decade before Marvel made its name as a filmic juggernaut. At that time comic book films consisted of Batman, which had just taken a truly awful turn, Superman, whom we hadn't seen in some time, or the odd misadventure like Spawn. Blade was something else – a story rooted in horror, a genuine action movie star in a role he was seemingly born to play, and a fantastic concept. Everything about that film works with the sole exception of some of the effects (even at the time some of the blood effects looked too fake), but that just dates the film and shows it was budgeted more moderately. And that opening sequence... holy shit... it's not hyperbole to say you rarely see an opening that rivals that in any genre, let alone offers that type of adrenaline rush.

And so four years later we had the distinct pleasure of Blade's return – bigger budget, more action, more vampires, the story continues. Shifting the focus from the darkened streets of New York, which felt more ingrained with the character, to the older city of Prague where he really is an outsider, makes for a different feeling film that implies it's more about Blade getting on and doing the job, jettisoning some of the more stylised elements of that first film the would seem out of place. This time we get a reluctant team up as Blade needs to work with the vampires to stop an even worse menace. Of course he works best alone, but the fun here is watching Blade try to play nice, allowed only to unleash his acerbic tongue, whilst a shaven headed Ron Perlman playing the asshole he does so well, becomes his main foil. These two sparring is of course a part of the film's appeal.

The real draw is of course Blade. In just the first few minutes he is on screen in the first film, Wesley Snipes has so effectively personified this character that it's impossible to see anyone else as Blade (there was a TV series in 2006 and it lasted 12 episodes – was it possible to fill Snipes' shoes?). There's the imposing physicality, the sharp knowing humour, the pathos as he continually battles being something he hates whilst painfully controlling it, and quite simply the fact that he is an incredible fighter. That latter point gets amped up with a superb fight scene in Blade II when he first encounters Leonor Varela and Danny John-Jules' vampire characters – it might be enhanced by CGI but the raw skill and choreography is there and it's enhanced just enough so it's believable for these characters. Put simply, Blade is the main draw of these films and it's impossible to imagine any other actor playing him quite so effectively.

As ever, any character like this needs someone to make their vampire killin' toys and so we are blessed with Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). Under the dictionary definition of "grizzled", the word's meaning could be very eloquently conveyed by simply showing a picture of Whistler. This is a man who hates bloodsuckers with a seething passion (with good cause) and is the perfect pairing to Blade, part father figure, part mentor, part world weary shit-kicking asshole. (Spoiler alert) Considering the quality of this character it's a shame to complain that he's even in Blade II but his presence is thanks to that awkward cop-out, 'well maybe he wasn't actually dead after all', diminishing some of the emotional impact of the first film where events worked just right in the confines of an isolated story. That was an era when if a film did well then great, maybe the studio might consider making another, rather than the current approach of having two sequels announced before the first has even made it to screens, with a story arc pre-tooled to run across them all. The door may have been left open for more at the end of the first film with a little "you never know" throwaway, but that didn't necessitate the full on resurrection of a key character. Still, we do get to see a young and verbose Norman Reedus fulfilling a similar role a good few years before he turned all silent and moody.

When making a film about vampires, one of the fundamentals is getting the creatures right and having an effective villain. The first film set the bar high with Deacon Frost. Stephen Dorff was perfect casting offering a stylish, effortlessly cool vampyric evil with even some social class politics thrown into has megalomania. Blade II surrounds our hero in a wider swathe of villainy. We get a mixture of the crone-like ancient, the traditional and Luke Goss' Nomak, who represents a new, mutated breed. This new breed are far more savage and terrifying (just look at how they feed), with Goss playing this character more on the low key side only enhancing his effectiveness. The film begins by introducing us to Nomak and it's another effective start, with a surprising sting. Good villains aside, it is a little disappointing that for two films in a row the bad guys end up tying our hero down to try and bleed him dry. Of course they want his enviable daywalker powers, but a little more creativity would not have gone amiss this second time round.

In the director's chair we have Guillermo del Toro, the ultimate geek director, making his second Hollywood movie. Mimic, released a few years earlier, had some good ideas but could have been better executed, but del Toro's potential had already shone through with Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, both of which were on the more subtle side. There is a definite personality that comes through in his films, but beyond the creature effects it is mostly lacking in Blade II, as such it could be from almost any director. Surely that's due to the nature of it being a comic book sequel, where such strong, previously defined characters need to dominate. Two year's later he'd give us the great Hellboy and his fingerprints are all over that because he was instrumental in defining how it should translate to screen. Lack of personality aside, del Toro's involvement ensures we have a decent film, even if it doesn't quite live up to the first.

Blade II is a worthy successor (unlike Blade: Trinity, but the less said about that the better), although this review seems to have ended up as a comparison between the two, but in hindsight that's inescapable because the first is just so damn good. It's the axis of high quality characters being really well portrayed, decent stories, and tonally aiming at the appropriate level. These films have bite and don't tone anything down. Had they come out in more recent years one can only imagine how unsatisfyingly toothless they would have been. Thanks to the recent huge successes of both Deadpool and Logan, the tide may be turning with studios no longer running quite so scared of comic book movies with more appropriately adult content that's actually representative of the source. Both Blade and Blade II show how things should be done correctly.

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