Blade II, Still Sharp

Movies Features Guillermo del Toro
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Jason Bailey did us all a solid with his sharp, declarative annotation of the worst chapter in Blade II’s otherwise untarnished legacy: The Review. If you have read The Review, then it likely so scarred you that you remember where you were, what you were wearing and what you’d eaten for lunch when you did. If you have not read The Review, well, misery loves company and those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.

For brevity’s sake, The Review is nauseating in more ways than the author has digits on the hands they used to type it. What’s lost in examination of those nauseating qualities, though, is The Review’s backpatting simplemindedness: Sexual metaphor and horror enjoy a longstanding relationship predating Blade II, and the author’s emphasis on that relationship as if they’ve discovered new ground is idiotic. Alien features sexual metaphor. Dead Alive features sexual metaphor. Evil Dead, The Wolf Man, Hellraiser, Psycho and, most of all, every vampire movie ever made feature sexual metaphor.

Bailey’s piece points us in the right direction: Blade II isn’t historic, or even good, for working vaginal imagery into its frames. The imagery is applied well, certainly. There are countless ways of rethinking vampires as monsters; giving them jaws that unhinge into Giger-esque nightmares, as director Guillermo del Toro does with Blade II’s mutant “reapers,” is a very good one. But this isn’t what we should commemorate the film for, and especially not the way The Review does. Instead, we should commemorate it as one of the best movies to carry the “superhero” appellation, and as one of del Toro’s best movies, full stop.

Both designations carry hefty burdens. Blade II arrived in 2002, six years before Iron Man caromed into multiplexes and another four before The Avengers left a crater on pop culture that remains, and in fact has grown in circumference, today; the number of MCU movies released in the 20 years since means Blade II’s competition in the superhero category is vast. Del Toro hasn’t made nearly as many movies, but all of them are actually good, and several of them are masterpieces: Pan’s Labyrinth, both Hellboy films, Crimson Peak, Pacific Rim, The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley. The man doesn’t miss.

Blade II’s status in that sterling filmography, and among scads of better-funded MCU movies, doesn’t come lightly. Even in the first half of the 2000s, those salad days before superhero movies became one of only a few kinds of movies that get made in the studio system now, spinning movies out of comic books was easy. They had a built-in audience. Selling tickets didn’t take much effort beyond cutting a cool trailer. Whether they had “X” in the title, or “Spider,” or “Fantastic,” or “Extraordinary,” or, yes, “Dare,” superheroes were a hot commodity. New Line Cinema put Blade II in theaters in the decade’s early stages, taking a gamble on a director who was at the time unknown to most American theatergoers (excepting some likely overlap in the Venn diagram where “comic book geeks” meet “international cinema enthusiasts”).

It was a mild gamble, of course. Stephen Norrington’s 1998 original pulled in around $131 million domestically off of a $45 million budget, and Wesley Snipes is (was, and will be again) a movie star of known quantity. Blade II wasn’t exactly a risk, but the risk the movie represented paid off nonetheless, with a larger return ($155 million) off of a slightly inflated budget ($54 million). Del Toro’s success can be explained in part by comic book movies’ general popularity and reasonable price tags, but it’s much more satisfying to frame Blade II’s profits as a product of filmmaking, imagination and pure entertainment. In other words: It kicks ass.

Most action films save the best for last. Blade II puts its best foot forward in an introductory fight sequence between half-human, half-immortal, all vampire hunter Blade (Snipes): His Prague hideout is infiltrated by a pair of vampires in ninja outfits, and he goes toe to often literal toe with them as his two human comrades—Scud (Norman Reedus) and Whistler (Kris Kristofferson)—take a whupping. Blade and his co-combatants, vampire royalty Nyssa (Leonor Varela) and gentlemanly Asad (Danny John-Jules), trade strikes snapped off with stunning agility, as if their limbs are under automation instead of their own control. Each kick, punch, and sword swing is dealt with the utmost precision. The encounter falls between balletic and ruthless, comprising two perfect minutes of coordinated martial excellence.

Del Toro’s remaining setpieces work splendidly, too, lasting longer and boasting the slick, bloody violence we crave from a Blade movie. Vampires, whether sliced, diced, slashed, shot or bludgeoned, turn to cinders. Snipes strikes a cool pose. It’s the meat of the franchise. It says a great deal about del Toro that Snipes appears to enjoy himself more in Blade II than in Blade; Blade, after all, is top-tier Snipes, the kind of movie that exercises every muscle in his star persona as he demonstrates, with little restriction, his immense skill as a martial artist. But the core of Blade is revenge and justice for Eric, the boy Blade might have been if his mother hadn’t been bitten by a vampire while he was in utero, and as such requires a more somber tone. Blade II lets him go nuts. He’s freer with del Toro, slier, aware without self-consciousness. He’s having fun, which, in a way, reflects del Toro’s approach to horror: The guy loves him some monsters, and that enthusiasm seems to filter into the very oxygen Snipes breathes.

Under del Toro’s care, the full character of Blade II is in the details. His most celebrated quality as a filmmaker is arguably his meticulousness, couched in his attention to even the seemingly trivial elements of his mise-en-scène. It’s an apparent trait in his preceding films (Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone) and refined in the years to come with each new project under his belt.

In some cases, Blade II’s most story-specific design choices directly informed the design choices of del Toro’s future movies. Take, for instance, Nyssa and Asad’s outfits in that fight scene: Lithe, textured and crowned with bug-eyed goggles. Hellboy recalls the stylization twice: In the conception of both the psychic fish-man Abraham Sapien (played by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde-Pierce) and the clockwork Nazi assassin Karl Kroenen (Ladislav Beran); Abraham gave del Toro a blueprint for the Amphibian Man (also played by Jones) 13 years later in The Shape of Water. For a much more obvious example, look no further than the reapers themselves, which likewise gave del Toro a blueprint for his 2009 novel The Strain (co-written with Chuck Hogan), which David Lapham and Mike Huddleston adapted into a comic in 2011, and which Carlton Cuse adapted into an FX series in 2014.

The popular myth about filmmakers who take jobs directing superhero movies—which, given Marvel’s dominance, usually means “directing MCU movies”—is that superhero clout grants them easier financing to make the movies they want to make. James Gunn hasn’t directed a non-superhero movie since 2010, nor Jon Watts since 2015, nor Peyton Reed since 2008; Taika Waititi went from a Thor movie to the risible Jojo Rabbit and back to another Thor movie; Ryan Coogler has the sequel to Black Panther next up on his docket, with no features separating it from the original. But in 2002, Del Toro didn’t take a job. He took an opportunity. Blade II allowed him the chance to hone his identity as an auteur without sacrificing the spirit he funneled into his first outings.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.