Around the release of Deadpool in February 2016 a lot of fuss was made by some about its ‘R’ rating in the USA (15 in the UK). This ranged from surprise at a ‘comic book movie’ being given such a certification, to claims that it was the first of its kind.
Long before Deadpool though, before Marvel’s Avengers assembled and even before Fox launched their still ongoing X-Men franchise actor/producer Wesley Snipes and director Stephen Norrington unleashed what could be credited as the first new-style Marvel movie on the cinema going audience, Blade, in 1998, with its own hard R rating (18 in the UK).
First appearing in comics in 1973, Blade is a vampire hunting half-vampire, leading to his nickname ‘Daywalker’. Snipes and Norrington realised him here in the midst of a kind of race war between the vampires, who have existed in a loose peace with humans for thousands of years, and Blade and a few (largely unseen) humans fighting to maintain the peace while an upstart vampire, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), is hell-bent on shattering it and the tradition of the blood suckers.
The story is pretty run of the mill for this kind of thing; Frost claims leadership of the vampires from ‘pure blood’ leader Dragonetti (the always eccentrically marvelous Udo Kier) and sets out to turn himself into legendary ‘blood god’ La Magra.
Blade is out to stop him while at the same time constantly seeking vengeance for his dead mother while being assisted by Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) who makes his weapons and it all ends up pretty much as you’d expect.
What really makes the film though is the style it is made with. Placed almost equidistant between the heyday of shoot ‘em up action in the 1980s and the emergence of the MCU, it somehow seems to fill this space perfectly.
As Blade, Snipes is all moody poses and action hero quips (complete with a suitable amount of ‘f-bombs’) while the fight sequences are based around martial arts in the way of the action stars that began with Bruce Lee and continued (with lesser success) with Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal et al but has become a bit passe these days.
Alongside this Norris paints a gritty and dark city that may be Detroit (though it’s never explicitly stated) and looks like visions of New York seen through the 1970s and 80s that, for me, is highly reminiscent of Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander. This gives the film a great setting that I can see as something akin to the Hell’s Kitchen seen in Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones which in a loose way connects it with the current MCU.
Within all of this it seems the film wants to deal with a few issues, specifically to do with race and drugs, but it never really pays these anything more than lip service. I think this is to the movie’s benefit though, and keeps it more in the sphere of a pure action film without getting bogged down in anything more.
As the film reaches its climax some early CGI does give it something of a dated feel but, with the expectation of this it didn’t spoil it for me (you can’t expect a film from 1998 to have special effects as good as today and I’m sure in 20 years we’ll be saying the same about Captain America: Civil War and its ilk).
Alongside Tim Burton’s Batman, Blade stands as one of the clear building blocks that led to the glut of comic book movies we have today (for better or worse), but still stands strong not only as an exponent of that genre but also as a great, supernatural, hyper-violent, action movie in its own right that has clearly influenced films like The Matrix and others since.