Blade (1998, Stephen Norrington)

Back when the movie came out—on DVD, anyway—I tried watching Blade 1 a couple times. The first time I turned it off before I was twenty minutes in, which used to be a soft rule (give the movie twenty minutes, depending on runtime); I think I gave it until Stephen Dorff showed up, then had to stop. Stopping when you see Stephen Dorff is always a reasonable action. The second time I with a friend (because a Blade buddy might help me get through it?); we put it on, I promptly passed out. The funny thing about the latter attempt was I passed out before I had stopped it, though I think I woke up for some of the end… but maybe not. I didn’t know Blade had a bad Raiders of the Lost Ark rip for an ending.

The first failed attempt was during the controversial—amongst my film enthusiast friends—“you don’t stop a movie if you start it” period of nineties film snobbery. That period overlaps, possibly entirely, with the “sit through the end credits to show respect for the crew” period of nineties film snobbery. These periods weren’t me solo, in fact I picked up at least the latter from my film snob peers. The former seemed like common sense, but is, of course, the anthesis of common sense. The second failed Blade attempt—I mean, I was also blasted—was during in a different period; “why bother watching if you’re not learning anything from it.” That period didn’t just cover film, it was for all media ingestion. Why read a novel if it’s not going to teach you (specifically) anything applicable for your writing craft. That third period went the longest, well into when I started blogging about film here on “The Stop Button.” While I see that third period as an organic result of the first two, along with some seasoning from academe, my film snob pals never went for it. Somehow it was too far a leap.

And I’ve also given it the boot, slowly over time, as I discovered how I wanted to write about movies.

In some cases, it’s spending three hundred words talking about not watching the movie. And Blade is the perfect subject matter for that approach. Because Blade is not a good movie. I toyed with the idea, after all these years, of how crazy it would be to give Blade a star. But anything good about it is incidental. Director Norrington just couldn’t manage to make it terrible because he was distracted screwing something else up. The film also has a stunningly bad script from David S. Goyer. Between the godawful exposition (Kris Kristofferson gets a lot of it and can’t do any of it) and the quizzical plotting—when the Raiders of the Lost Ark thing takes over in the second half, along with the big second act surprise, Blade feels like a very different film. Sort of. It’s still ugly in all the ill-advised ways Norrington employs, like the harsh, high often contrast lighting (courtesy Theo van de Sande, who either’s responsible or not but I wouldn’t want to track his career either way) or the crappy CG. Blade is ostensibly super-gritty but only when it’s Wesley Snipes. The nineties emo vampire stuff is never super-gritty. Norrington’s understanding of super-gritty is occasional shaky cam and inept head room and letting editor Paul Rubell chop whole seconds of action out to make it seem speedy. Every once in a while, there will be a sequence—like Snipes with his samurai sword taking out an endless stream of vampires dressed like they’re Joker thugs from Batman ’89—and you can see exactly how Norrington could’ve done it well. Because pretty soon it would be done well. Blade anticipates the visual tone of future films but none of the future style or technical ingenuity. Because Norrington sucks.

Someone also got the idea to have Mark Isham score it like John Williams, which doesn’t make sense until the end when it’s Raiders; for a while the movie pretends it’s Terminator 2—Snipes and partner Kristofferson hanging out with on-the-run-from-the-vampires hematologist N'Bushe Wright in their clubhouse; those scenes are really weird with the Isham score. Goyer’s script isn’t derivative and is bad. Norrington’s direction isn’t ever not derivative and is bad. It’s incredibly interesting how the two collide.

Stuck in the middle are Snipes and Wright. Blade can’t help but give Wright a great role and Goyer and Norrington can’t help but try to destroy it. Norrington’s got some… toxic masculinity issues. Or maybe just rape culture ones. It’s a couple things, with Wright being on the receiving end later (courtesy “no way” ex-boyfriend Tim Guinee), but the first one is Norrington’s onscreen director title card. It’s a gross “really, dude?”

Wright comes out very sympathetic, but she’s a lot better at the urban vampire action than the pseudo-Raiders thing. Some of the problem with the Raiders thing is Norrington’s bad visual storytelling, some of it is Goyer not giving Wright enough to do; if any of it’s Wright’s fault, you basically can’t tell. Goyer and Norrington give their separate badnesses 110%. You can barely make-out the acting through it.

Well, except with Dorff, who’s hilariously bad, Donal Logue, who’s hilariously bad, Udo Kier, who’s hilariously bad but also very obviously just playing a caricature and not trying… every once in a while, you get the feeling Blade could’ve been a lot better if it just let itself camp out on the shitty vampires. Wesley Snipes killing a bunch of silly, shitty white vampires would be a fun movie. Especially if Norrington had long enough shots of Snipes kicking ass. Snipes gives his physical performance his all in Blade and Norrington picks up about twenty percent of it. Other times the camera will be focused on a pillar instead of Snipes doing a jump kick or whatnot. Norrington is a stunningly bad action director, even for bad action directors.

Other bad performances include Arly Jover, who at one point seems like she’s going to give a good performance but then doesn’t. Sanaa Latham is actually good, which takes a few moments to comprehend–unqualified good acting in Blade.

For Snipes, it’s a good lead role. Ish. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting, his occasional personable action hero insert shots are weird, but he gets through it. He and Wright have less chemistry than… I don’t know, Kristofferson and Wright or something. It’s unfortunate and another way the filmmakers fail Wright.

I’m a little curious how the Isham score stands on its own—at one point he’s got to add all the tension to an action sequence because Norrington can’t figure it out–but otherwise, Blade doesn’t have much one could learn from it. Outside the contextual trivia.

It’s nowhere near as bad (or good) as it could be, which is the biggest disappointment of all.

It’s eh.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Norrington; screenplay by David S. Goyer, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan; director of photography, Theo van de Sande; edited by Paul Rubell; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Robert Engelman, Peter Frankfurt, and Wesley Snipes; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Wesley Snipes (Blade), Stephen Dorff (Deacon Frost), Kris Kristofferson (Whistler), N’Bushe Wright (Karen), Donal Logue (Quinn), Arly Jover (Mercury), Tim Guinee (Curtis), Sanaa Lathan (Vanessa), and Udo Kier (Dragonetti).


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