The Savage Stack - BLADE (1998)

Wesley Snipes' Daywalker saga is still the best comic book action movie ever made.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The thirty-third entry into this unbroken backlog is the ultraviolent vampire-slaying MCU precursor, Blade

Stephen Norrington’s Blade opens with what arguably still stands as the best set piece in comic book cinema history. A goofball bro horn-dog (The Shield’s Kenny Johnson) has his little head brainwashed by a pallid temptress (Softcore Queen Traci Lords), who leads him through a meat packing plant to a secret techno club. Inside, bodies writhe and bump together as the DJ spins a Detroit-influenced remix of New Order’s “Confusion”, an ominous hand-painted banner screaming “Bloodbath” behind him. As the track rises and hands are thrown toward the heavens, the sprinklers open and release a torrent of crimson. Suddenly, everything becomes clear. That glimpse of human bodies, hung like stripped cattle, the player spotted on the way in wasn’t his mind playing tricks on him. This party isn’t just some ecstasy-fueled rave, where everyone goes home to indulge in one another’s sex. He’s been brought here as a lamb to the slaughter, these lilywhite dancers baring fangs that only belong to movie monsters.

This hapless douche’s savior comes in the form of pure blackness. Crawling through a plasma river, his hands slipping on the industrial tile floor, he stops upon reaching a grinning, imposing figure. Draped in a midnight trench coat and body armor, Blade (Wesley Snipes) isn’t here to dance. He’s here to massacre these white suckheads with automatic weapons, a customized sword, and a double-edged boomerang that’s perfect for facilitating multiple decapitations. With the aid of stunt choreographer Jeff Imada and cinematographer Theo van de Sande (not to mention a killer Second Unit crew), Blade cements an icon via a flurry of perfectly shot and cut action, as multiple faceless marauders bum rush the titular slayer as he sprays the crowd with silver bullets before beating the ever-living shit out of all oncoming challengers. It’s a Hong Kong-worthy burst of controlled chaos, the camera kept steady and wide so that Snipes’ skills are on full display, dispatching these beasts into piles of supernatural ash that conclude their previously immortal existences. Nothing in the subsequently established MCU has even come close to topping it.

Originally appearing in Tomb of Dracula #10 (July ’73), Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan stated that they crafted Blade as a composite of several black actors and sports stars (namely Fred Williamson and Jim Brown). So, it makes sense that the first cinematic iteration of the character would become embroiled in a conspiracy that feels pulled out of classic Blaxploitation pictures from the same period. Blade is essentially the black crusader, fighting a war against a legion of race supremacists, looking to annihilate all they deem inferior to their night-dwelling, blood-drinking selves. Had Norrington made Blade during the same epoch in which the hunter was created, he’d certainly be sporting the afro Colan originally drew him with and battling Nazis hellbent on ruling the world at his people’s expense. The fact that the grand scheme devised by Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) revolves around obtaining Blade’s blood (as he’s a fabled “Daywalker” vamp who can exist in the sunlight) further ties the picture to the racist perversion of eugenics, as the black man’s “superior” DNA is fetishized by his enemies as a means to achieve master race dominance.

Stephen Norrington is an English SFX guru, having worked under James Cameron and David Fincher as a creature supervisor while the two auteurs took turns helming Alien installments. He also collaborated with Richard Stanley on his cyborg cyberpunk freak out, Hardware (’90), helping to bring the central murderous robot to life. His only directorial effort before Blade was the abysmal Brad Dourif “science gone bad” borderline fan film (with character names such as Scott Ridley and Jack Dante) Death Machine (’94). Keeping that background in mind, you can formulate an idea regarding what type of motion picture producers Avi Arad and Stan Lee were expecting from Snipes’ project (which he’d originally attached himself to in hopes of eventually playing Black Panther). Per writer David S. Goyer, Norrington was incredibly difficult to work with (going as far as to mock the scribe’s tattoos), and his original 140+ minute cut of the movie had to be re-shot and re-edited after test screening audiences rejected it outright. There was no faith in the black superhero at New Line, and Blade was delayed over half a year due to behind the scenes turmoil before receiving an August ’98 release. Blade was relegated to B-Movie status from the moment it hit theaters; nothing more than a late summer cool down for audiences who’d already stuffed themselves silly with blockbusters like Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon 4.

However, this B-Movie packaging aids Blade, in that the movie delivers sturdy cheap thrills, a black action hero and somewhat subversive themes without a hint of pretense. While Marvel has struggled to introduce a headlining superman of color into their ranks (folks hailing the impending arrival of Black Panther as the first must’ve forgotten about the Daywalker’s existence), Snipes completely owns the role with a droll, throaty delivery of every line (“some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill” will always trump “I am Iron Man”). Norrington also wisely accentuates the Eurotrash aesthetics of his vampire adversaries, going as far as to cast Udo Kier as a “pure blood” head of the bloodsucker hierarchy. Almost twenty years later, the sheer blackness of Blade is remarkable, as the design of the character and narrative bring race to the forefront while only overtly commenting on it once (Frost calling Blade an “Uncle Tom” is a holy shit moment nearly twenty years later). Though the film suffered serious post production re-working (with a complete re-jiggering of Norrington’s original Akira-esque “Blood God” finale), there’s a distinct vision that flies in the face of the producer-driven identity Marvel would adopt with their shared universe corporate concept.

Blade’s right hand man adds a craggy James Bondian comedic element to the proceedings. Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) is basically Blade’s Q, but also acts as a surrogate father figure after the hunter’s mother allegedly died during childbirth. There’s a cozy connection between the gravel-voiced, long-haired weapons master, as the two create a secret warehouse lair where the biker engineers an arsenal for the Daywalker to wield against his enemies. After rescuing hematologist Karen Jensen (N’Bushe Wright) after a vampire attack, the duo become a trio, as the blood specialist works to find a cure for the rare blood disease Blade was born with (and she is now suffering from). When combined with the sparse world building Goyer’s script integrates into the proceedings – including the vamp-serving “familiars” and an entire “dead language/religion” element to the main plot – Blade lays down a respectable foundation for a franchise to be built upon, and an emotional element that fuels our hero’s final rampage, as we become attached to this fully formed unit quite quickly.

Now that we’re inundated with comic book cinema on a yearly basis, it’s easy to forget that, before Blade, there was a twelve-year gap between Marvel films being released in US theaters*. When Snipes’ Daywalker saga hit screens, it wasn’t part of some greater scheme to launch a cinematic universe. Blade was an action picture first and a comic book movie second, which lends it a rather distinct sense of personality in hindsight. The movie became a moderate success, spawning two sequels (with Guillermo de Toro’s Blade II considered by some to be superior to the original) and a TV series starring Sticky Fingaz. Norrington’s directorial career would flame out in spectacular fashion, following his unwatchable League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (’03) adaptation. It’s a shame we haven’t seen Snipes slip on the trench coat since Goyer’s own franchise installment, Blade: Trinity (’04), as he transformed the character into a genre cinema icon that wasn’t initially tethered to some greater narrative collective. Blade is closer to being Marvel’s Blacula than anything contained in the MCU – a work unafraid of its own identity while operating within a mode that recognized exactly what the audience desired, and delivered with metallic, splattery aplomb.

*Howard the Duck (’86) being the last before New World Entertainment purchased Marvel Entertainment Group and started churning out junk like The Punisher (’89) and Captain America (’90), which played in cinemas overseas and was released straight to video in America.

Blade is currently available on Blu-ray and to stream.

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