With the obvious exception of Peter Jackson, few directors working almost exclusively in the fantasy and horror genres have achieved the kind of critical and commercial success Mexican writer/director Guillermo del Toro routinely enjoys. His first full-length feature, surreal Mexican vampire flick CRONOS, was followed by 1997’s so-so American giant insect creature feature MIMIC, which in turn led to 2001’s celebrated Spanish period ghost story THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE. del Toro’s sheer versatility – his ability to tell stories in more than one language, in more than one genre, and in the service of more than one demographic – is part of the secret of his success, as is his natural storytelling talent. He clearly has an affinity for the marvellous and the monstrous, as evidenced by the wealth of weird creatures populating his movies, but he’s equally at home in the realm of action/comedy (the HELLBOY franchise) and serious literary fable (the haunting PAN’S LABYRINTH). In 2002, a year after THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, he was once again in commercial mode, and returned to the States to helm BLADE 2, a sequel to Stephen Norrington’s 1998 original, starring Wesley Snipes as the titular day-walking vampire. Created in 1973 by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan, Blade was (and still remains) a bit-player in the sprawling (and highly profitable) Marvel comic book universe, a nod of the cap to horror in a medium dominated by superheroes. Never having achieved the popularity of his spandex-clad compatriots, Blade seemed an odd choice for a big screen adaptation (the era of B, C and D-list comic book characters being snapped up by Hollywood and rushed into production was still years away), and Norrington’s original did little to change anyone’s mind. That it warranted a sequel is surprising enough; that the sequel remains one of the best comic book adaptations to date, and one of the best vampire movies ever, is nothing short of astonishing.
Blade (Wesley Snipes), a vampire/human hybrid with all the strengths of the legendary supernatural creatures but without their aversion to sunlight, tears the vampire underworld apart looking for his mentor, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), now a prisoner of his enemies. In the meantime, a new and deadlier strain of vampire emerges, the ‘Reapers,’ led by the mysterious Nomak (Luke Goss). Nomak and his follows are targeting regular vampires, forcing the ruling vampire elite to join forces with Blade in an effort to wipe out the Reapers, who also pose a significant threat to humanity. Blade, Whistler and young protégé Scud (Normal Reedus) form an unlikely alliance with the so-called ‘Bloodpack,’ a group of vampire assassins originally formed to hunt down Blade, led by the cantankerous Reinhardt (Ron Perlman), in a bid to stop Nomak and his army of undead predators...
Every now and again all the cinematic elements seem to come together, delivering a movie that far exceeds expectations. This is the case with BLADE 2. The original was adequate at best, and del Toro, despite showing promise, was yet to produce anything truly groundbreaking. Screenwriter David S. Goyer, these days highly regarded as one of the architects of Christopher Nolan’s triumphant Batman reboot, was better known as the writer of such forgettable straight-to-video titles as THE PUPPET MASTERS and KICKBOXER 2: THE ROAD BACK. Even Wesley Snipes was more renowned for his supporting roles (KING OF NEW YORK, RISING SUN, U.S. MARSHALLS) than his starring turns. BLADE 2 shouldn’t have been anything special; as a slice of balls-to-the-wall horror comic book action, it hasn’t been equalled a decade later.
Perhaps the most surprising element of BLADE 2 is the central performance. These days Wesley Snipes is as famous for his antics off the screen as on them, and seems to get less watchable with every role (he has to take a large part of the blame for the travesty that was BLADE 3: TRINITY – bending over backwards to exude cool, he comes across as arrogant, lazy and more than a little ridiculous). Not here, though. This is a leaner, hungrier Snipes, one who’s willing to fully participate in the process. He riffs on the coolly laconic persona he introduced in the first film, but isn’t yet so bored/abstracted that he’s devoid of personality. In part it’s because he has to make an effort – he’s sharing the screen with such an eclectic bunch of psychopaths and hardcore weirdoes that anything less than a full-throttled performance would see him disappear into the background. A surprisingly young-looking Ron Perlman chews the scenery in glorious fashion (it’s not hard to see why del Toro chose him to play Hellboy), the Bloodpack strut their stuff in a concerted effort to out-macho one another, and even Luke Goss, erstwhile member of boy band Bros, makes an impression.
Goyer’s script, despite being riddled with clichés and the kind of uber-manly dialogue it must be almost impossible to recite with a straight face, is embraced by the cast and crew, and crackles with a manic energy. The story beats are predictable, but the whole thing’s elevated way above its station by del Toro’s clever, action-packed, visually sumptuous direction. He keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, demonstrating a talent for accomplished large scale set-pieces his previous work hadn’t hinted at. The action is balletic, articulated by a mixture of live action and computer-generated effects (the latter holding up remarkably well even today). Full use is made of Snipes’ formidable physical presence and fighting skills, and his ego (responsible, presumably, for so many of his subsequent going-through-the-motions performances) is kept firmly in check. The vampires are suitably grubby and gruesome; the Reapers even more so. These aren’t the fey Gothic princes of tween romance – they move in packs like feral dogs and resemble rotting cadavers. The new strain of vampires are treated like a virus, a pathogen with legs, adding a genuine sense of OUTBREAK-like threat to the proceedings.
BLADE 2 isn’t the greatest vampire movie of all time, but it’s certainly the greatest vampire comic book movie (not that there’s much competition), and one of the best comic book adaptations so far. It’s also a seminal example of action/horror, with del Toro’s dazzling, dizzying camerawork matched by a cast on top form and a story that doesn’t sag for a second. The influence on Nolan’s aforementioned BATMAN BEGINS is obvious (hardly surprisingly, given Goyer’s involvement), and the model established by del Toro (take what works from the first instalment and go bigger and better) is evident in the more successful comic book sequels (SPIDER-MAN 2, X-MEN 2). Perhaps most impressively, the film manages to present a Gothic vampire tale with all the traditional elements intact – sunlight, garlic, stakes through the heart – and makes it relevant, exciting and downright bloody gritty.