Last time, I wrote about my introduction to Blade and how it helped me overcome my film snobbery and made me a better human being. I’m still a snob, but one with fewer self-imposed restrictions (The Julia Roberts Rule, however, is still in effect—Steel Magnolias or Mystic Pizza? Neither thanks!). Since Blade was a modest success at the box office and even more successful on home video, a sequel was commissioned by New Line Pictures. The timing coincided with Fox’s successful X-Men, a movie about comic-book mutants I didn’t know, besides the scrappy Canadian immortal, Wolverine (being ridiculed on the schoolyard for reading Green Arrow, “SUGGESTED FOR MATURE READERS” emblazoned on each cover, about a grim 40-something archer and former Justice Leaguer who lives in rainy Seattle with Black Canary, instead of the million X-men books, is a painful childhood memory that I’m still overcoming.). I’ve already written about the nature of the sequel, so I won’t retread that territory, but when films become beloved to millions of movie lovers and also happen to make a lot of dough, Hollywood notices. Blade was no different. Director Stephen Norrington declined returning for the sequel, opting for his magnum opus: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sean Connery’s final bow on the big screen before retirement (Happy belated 90th birthday, Sean!), and Norrington’s last feature film to date. Instead, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, acclaimed for his marvelous debut, Cronos, and enjoyable evolved-cockroach creeper, Mimic, signed on to direct. Del Toro would honor Blade, but he would also add a bit more humor and horror to the vampy proceedings. Not only did del Toro fulfill his dream to play with a comic-book property, but he would add his own personal touches to the continuing exploits of the Day Walker and His Crusade Against Vampirism.
Many filmmakers would scoff at making a sequel to a beloved film like Blade, mostly out of professional pride and creative consideration, but del Toro takes the opportunity to play with an established comic-book world, ramping up the horror gleefully, creating a terrifying mutation that threatens both humanity and vampiredom. When we last left Blade, he was dealing with some Russian vampires, but now he’s in the Czech Republic, looking for his mentor/father figure, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson, adding yet another layer of crust to his already-very-crusty character). But wait—didn’t Whistler die by his own hand in Blade? In true comic book fashion, that flashback scene has been altered to demonstrate that Whistler’s aim was indeed untrue; he was retrieved by vampires and placed in stasis in a big pouch of red fluid, reminding me of the Capri Suns I never got to have in my youth, in an unmarked warehouse in Czech (warehouses are the go-to settings for nefarious machinations in the movies, but what happens if there are unscheduled government inspections? A neighbor dropping off mail delivered to the wrong address? A non-profit agency canvassing for donations? Criminal underworld bureaucracy, making sure everybody is paid off handsomely, must be a very meticulous-yet-irritating process!). During his leisurely continent-spanning vacation, Blade sought the services of a new tech/weapons guy, Scud (not to be confused with “Stud”—with apologies to all the people who think Norman Reedus is inexplicably hunky with a crossbow on The Walking Dead), so he’s prepared for the European vampires who favor the left side of the road. The head vampire family, led by a ghoulish-looking Eli Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann), is deeply troubled by a vampire plague (vampdemic?) affecting his kind, so he sends his daughter, Nyssa (Leonor Varela) and loyal vampire warriors (including Red Dwarf’s “Cat”, Danny John-Jules!) to offer Blade a temporary truce and a possible job: kill the mutated vampires, carriers of the Reaper virus, led by Jared Nomack (Luke Goss). I kept thinking about vampire hierarchy again, wondering how the Udo Kier-led vampire council from Blade applies to Damaskino, but I get distracted often by minutiae; Blade II doesn’t have time for minutiae.
Blade II is a worthy sequel because it maintains the original film’s worldview, but adds a greater emphasis on horror. There’s a dance club again, but this time in Czech with European clubgoing (Gothier than Goth) vampires, but there are no blood orgies to be found, merely a gruesome showdown between the mutant Reapers and Blade and the vampire superteam, The Bloodpack (note: this is a very dumb name, but apparently it’s from the comics). Blade II reminds me of Aliens, where he Bloodpack is packing big, unwieldy weapons, but it’s not enough to stop the slaughter of clubgoers and team members. Like those colonial marines of long ago, the Bloodpack members aren’t very memorable, save for del Toro’s ace in the hole, Ron Perlman, who delights as Dieter Reinhardt, a tall, bald, badass vamp who antagonizes Blade constantly; he also wears his sunglasses at night (This would be the first of two vampire roles for Perlman in 2002—his talents would be squandered later in the year, playing Tom Hardy’s Reman viceroy who psychically assaults Counselor Troi in the dreadful Star Trek: Nemesis.).
Fresh off Mimic, del Toro continues his fascination with gruesome, otherworldly, insectoid imagery, as the Reapers appear in humanoid form. But watch out, don’t get too close—their mouths splay open to reveal a Lovecraftian display of bone, sharp teeth, tendrils, and ooze. A vampire’s greatest strength is to appear human to walk among us and feed surreptitiously, but they choose whether to turn a victim into a member of the undead or leave behind as a drained corpse. The Reapers take it a step further, feeding off humans and vampires alike, creating a new member of their species by biological will, a contagion spreading at an alarming rate. After seeing how easily Nomack can take out the entire vampire staff of a blood bank in the opening pre-credit sequence, the viewer understands why the vampires need Blade—they’re terrified! And unlike our current predicament in the real world (sorry, conspiracy theorists), it’s the vampires themselves who are to blame for the contagion, a foolish dream to perfect the vampire species in order to defeat the Day Walker. It’s comforting to know that despite losing much of their humanity, vampires are just as stupid as the rest of us when it comes to eugenics. Del Toro delights in serving up vampire comeuppance with a lot of blood, bathing the film in red and green to illustrate the precious lifeforce of blood and the sense of death and decay permeating the Old World vampires.
After four long years, Wesley Snipes returns as the laconic vampire hunter, and if he had any difficulty getting back into character, you’d never suspect it. He’s a commanding presence from his first scene, dispatching a group of vampire motorcycle hoodlums with confidence and style. There’s not only a sense of determination in continuing his insurmountable mission, but Blade seems to be having fun—we see Blade blow a kiss to his beloved Charger when hunting the motorcycle gang and he smiles–smiles—when he bests Rheinhardt by placing an explosive charge on his head (their ongoing verbal sparring truly is a tête à tête). Snipes’ interactions with Kristofferson are always welcome—like the viewer, Blade knows the vampires will betray he and Whistler: “They’re going to fuck us the first chance that they get!” In fact, Blade is a step ahead of everybody, especially weaselly Scud, because in the first film he learned a near-fatal lesson not to be lured into a trap by his emotions again. While mutual attraction is acknowledged between Nyssa and our hero, he doesn’t get the undead gal in the end—Snipes portrays a lone, melancholy warrior who realizes he’s not allowed the same benefits as the rest of us when it comes to love.
Blade II’s post-opening-credits sequence, Blade’s reintroduction, allows del Toro to expand on the first film’s action with some clever camera trickery of his own: Blade leaps from a building, his black and crimson-lined jacket billowing effortlessly in the Prague night, guns drawn, as he descends calmly to terra firma, the camera shifting perspective during the freefall, and instantaneously, several vampires transform into ashes. It’s hypnotic and exhilarating, illustrative of del Toro’s devotion to the character and the first film, but with personal flair. del Toro treats the source material with respect, and it’s no surprise that Blade II’s success led him to bringing ‘90s indie comic demonic darling Hellboy to the big screen. Gore and grime are in equal parts: the dark underbelly of Prague is awash in sickly yellow and green light, as Nomack feeds violently on vampires, arterial blood blasting blood bank walls. The ancient Damaskinos looks equally as foul, despite his restorative blood baths (Elizabeth Bathory has nothing on him!), a far cry from the nattily dressed vampire council in Blade. The Bloodpack hunts for Reapers in sewers full of rats, excrement, and corpses–it’s as if del Toro thought the New York subway catacombs in Mimic wasn’t grimy enough. The bleak setting is suitably nauseating, but I don’t think Tourism Prague will be using Blade II to highlight the city’s wonders anytime soon.
Blade II fulfills most of what people look for in a sequel: it honors Blade while trying something new that doesn’t betray the original spirit, utilizing a bigger budget smartly to depict a decrepit netherworld of vampires invaded by the threat of New World science and mutation. This isn’t a sequel that offers needless bombast to entice viewers to hide a lack of creative spirit; the opportunity to film in Eastern Europe gives the film a different look and tone from Blade, but Guillermo del Toro doesn’t try to rewrite or copy Stephen Norrington’s work—he imbues the sequel with his own distinctive touches to enhance the original film. The war on vampires may be suspended temporarily, but the Day Walker’s interactions with the Bloodpack and Nomack make for an engaging and thrilling 90 minutes. Blade II doesn’t rewrite the sequel rulebook, but it’s demonstrative of a burgeoning franchise utilizing the talents of a filmmaker who strives to make a good film, whether it’s an original film or a studio-mandated sequel. It gives the viewer hope that the next instalment will be just as thoughtful in its creative approach. Sadly, when Hollywood gets something right, it often fails to remember what it got right in the first place, stumbling hard when making the next sequel.
NEXT TIME: BLADE FEELS OUT PLACE IN THE WORLD, COURTESY OF NEW ROOMMATES