Blade II (2002)

One of the most pleasing aspects of Blade II is that it finally accords credit where credit is due, with prominent billing for writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan, who had to bring a legal action to remind Marvel Comics and New Line Cinema that they created Blade in the first place, as a supporting character in Marvel's 1970s comic Tomb of Dracula. As his weapon-related name suggests, the original idea was for a hero who combined the ethnicity, wardrobe and jive talk of Shaft with the vampire-killing versatility of Bram Stoker's Dr Van Helsing (the comic book Blade's favoured weapons were hardwood knives used as stakes). Given the clutch of Marvel properties (Howard the Duck, The Punisher, Captain America) that straggled to the screen or failed to (Cannon's Spider-Man, the permanently-shelved Roger Corman Fantastic Four) in the twenty years before the blockbuster X-Men, no one would have guessed that the modest but slick Blade would be the comics giant's film breakthrough. After his first series petered out, Blade found himself relegated to the sort of guest appearances (a shot on the Spider-Man animated TV show) typical of cancelled characters. At one point, Marvel even obliterated Blade's rationale by having their 'Sorcerer Supreme' Dr Strange cast a spell wiping out vampirism from the Marvel Universe (like all ultimate solutions in comics, it didn't last). Strangely, the high profile of Blade as a film franchise has prompted only the most token efforts at bringing him back in his home medium.

It seems doubtful that this follow-up will do much for Blade himself: without the human contact he had in the first film and less the angst over his origin, Wesley Snipes' buff, humourless, strutting hero barely registers as anything more than the sort of on-screen avatar computer games enthusiasts guide through similar successions of combats. New director Guillermo del Toro brings along a distinctively insectile take on vampirism (the Reapers mouth-parts distend impressively into mandibled orifices) from his earlier efforts Cronos and Mimic, this is more of the same, only darker, faster, thinner and with added vampire disintegration effects. After a prologue, in which shuffling vagrant Nomak (an unrecognisable Luke Goss, snarling most of his dialogue in vampire-accent Czech) attacks a vampire-run blood bank, a brisk recap re-establishes the hero's beginnings and modus operandi, then his introductory fight plays the typical comics game of revoking the death of a character who was disposed of last time round. The fact that Whistler can be cured of his vampirism unhelpfully complicates Blade's single-minded crusade (like his TV cousin Buffy, Blade never confronts the fact that if even one vampire is redeemable then exterminating all the others seems more like mass murder than heroism), but the film sorely needs Kris Kristofferson's gnarly charisma even as returning scenarist David S. Goyer's busy but unconvinced plot fails to find much for him to do beyond act a bit suspiciously in a feeble attempt to suggest that Norman Reedus's jittery Scud isn't the traitor.

Aside from one good lawyer joke, Goyer just reshuffles the ingredients of the first film: again, a new breed of more aggressive vampire defies the conservative hierarchy of the species and Blade has to wipe them out, though here the ultimate villain is the Dracula-style Damaskinos rather than his rebellious son; again, the locales for conflict are nightclubs with throbbing techno music (officially exciting, the score is the single aspect which will date the film most swiftly) and underground tunnels; again, a clutch of undercharacterised warriors (a Maori-tattooed giant hammerwielder, martial arts advisor Donnie Yen, Red Dwarf refugee Danny John Jules, Ron Perlman reprising his star-baiting act from Alien Resurrection) are set against Blade and get vanquished in short order; again, Blade is trapped in a dissection machine and escapes to confront the master-villain. Quite a few of the plot specifics and even the murky Iron Curtain look of the film have been pre-empted by the direct-to-video film The Breed, which also had an apparently honourable vampire patriarch indulging in genetic engineering to create a super-strain of vampire and partnered vampire and human to track down the rogues.

Given the popularity of Prague as a film location, it's refreshing to see the city playing itself for a change (though we assume Damaskinos's Bond villain lair is in America) but beyond the opening scene's grim post-Soviet blood bank, little is made of the Eastern European connection. Del Toro is a far more exciting director than the original's Stephen Norrington, but taking seconds means he doesn't get the A material. There are plenty of gruesome or startling moments (even some beautiful ones, like Damaskinos floating in a classical bath of blood), but they are randomly strung together with no sense of building to a climax. The token attempt at working up a respect verging on romance between Blade and Nyssa falls down through the weakness of Leonor Varela's performance, which especially scuppers the would-be moving final immolation.

First Published In: Sight and Sound June 2002

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