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Jared Nomak the Reaper
Luke Goss as Reaper Jared Nomak:
Bad skin, split lip, wretched outfit

Blade II: Vampire Sequel Sharper than Original

Marvel Honing Edge in Spiderman Tune-up?

By C. Antonio Romero

NEW YORK, 2 May 2002—It must be tough to be the producer or director of a film like Blade II. You do good solid work, you get decent notices, but is your work really appreciated for what it is? Or only for how it sets up someone else's major project?

Marvel Comics's Blade is one of their lesser franchises— a low-stakes property compared to X-Men or flagship Spiderman. But it did break ground for the company in the 1998 movie adaptation with Wesley Snipes. Released in the off-season, positioned away from the big block-busters, it wad a kind of trial balloon: with a marquee name or two and no skimping on the action, at least, could the Marvel properties—historically the object of weak, even releasable adaptations—be big box office? Sure enough, Blade, while no masterpiece, did enough things right—style and action, if not plotting, dialogue or acting—and topped the charts at summer's end.

Surely its success was part of what brought X-Men to the screen two years later, with top talent like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan—another smash, which in turn has opened the rest of Marvel's portfolio to big-budget Hollywood treatments. This year's Blade II, then, has to be viewed not just as a project in itself, but as a test-bed of sorts for Marvel superhero film-making—an off-season release once again, which will have done its work and made its money by the time this year's Spiderman reaches the silver screen.

On its own merits, Blade II has to be judged a better effort than the original. Story editing has taken a step forward—the movie's actually mostly coherent. The main plot line is simple enough: Blade is in Eastern Europe to rescue his mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson, captured by vampires in the first film and spirited away to their home turf—a detail which explains the ludicrous coda of the first film). There, he is approached by two vampires bearing a message from the head of the Vampire Nation, vampire patriarch Eli Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann, whose look owes more than a little to Max Schreck).

Thomas Kretschmann as Eli Damaskinos 

Damaskinos seeks a truce, and a deal with Blade— with his help, they will hunt down a group of "Reapers", a sort of mutant vampire's vampire. Feeding on vampires as well as humans, and transforming vampires into more Reapers, Reapers threaten both species with extinction in a matter of months if not contained. (Vampirism, we learn, is caused by a virus, which alters the physiology of the infected; Reapers are the product of a mutated strain of this virus, which induces much more drastic transformation.) The first Reaper, Jared Nomak (Luke Goss), is the ultimate carrier of the virus and key to the epidemic—if he's eliminated, the other Reapers will die off in days. (Compounding his offenses, he's a fashion criminal; neither he nor any of the other Reapers can dress with the flash of Blade or the Vampires.)

Blade is placed in charge of the Bloodpack (an elite vampire strike team created, ironically, to hunt down and kill Blade). With the help of Whistler and young Scud (Norman Reedus), who's been helping Blade out with technology and logistic support in Whistler's absence, they cook up a new batch of toys (vampire-disintegrating ultraviolet grenades etc.), strap on their body armor and go Reaper-hunting. 

Blade and Bloodpack, ready to reap

Of course, the plot gets more involved from here—Nomak and Damaskinos have agendas and of their own, Blade has to deal with a traitor in his ranks, there are stirrings of a romantic possibility with Damaskinos' exotic daughter Nyssa (Leonor Varela), and there's plenty of opportunities for macho bullshit between Blade and Bloodpack commander Reinhardt (Ron Perlman). But, if melodrama (or family drama) sometimes threatens to overwhelm the action, things never descend into the sometimes embarassing incoherence of the first film.

It's more interesting, though, to look at how this film goes beyond the first one, and how clear it is that it's an opportunity for those involved in Marvel adaptations to practice their craft. Director Guillermo Del Toro's previous work in horror (the most notable entry in his short CV being last year's The Devil's Backbone) comes in handy, as the first film felt a bit too much like a martial-arts ballet or an exercise in edgy goth style with the blood-sucking thing thrown in for gravy. (The Reapers in action are truly awful to behold—Nomak's split lip is only the least of his disfigurements, rest assured.) He also gets the performances he needs from his actors—nobody is great, to be sure, but, unlike the first film, no one embarasses themselves either.

The action, again, is impressive—if Wesley Snipes sometimes looks like he's dancing some deadly flamenco, with moves a little too pretty to be convincing combat, it matches for the most part the Hong Kong-inspired fight choreography of the first movie. (Credit should go to Hong Kong action veteran Donnie Yen, who, in addition to serving as fight choreographer, shows up in the Bloodpack.) More care could have been taken during a protracted bug-hunt in a sewer system-- at times, the tunnels themselves seem more laid out for a bug-hunt than for any reasonable purpose, and the weapons used in the fight have capabilities that don't make sense (UV light that goes around corners, but only when it's convenient?). But this isn't the kind of movie where you're supposed to think hard about these questions.

Even where the action scenes don't work, they're interesting to watch—and they're where you see dry-runs of techniques that we'll see again in bigger-budget Marvel franchise films. Computer-generated surrogates perform some of the more agressive moves which might earlier have been handled with wire-work or other effects techniques—vampires scamper along walls and ceilings, vault about in the rafters of great old Eastern European buildings and warehouse spaces, and backflip over each other's heads in combat. Meanwhile, the camera follows the action in ways no real camera could, and some shots are framed as if to suggest comic-book panels. The digital effect work is not always convincing, frankly—limitations of budget rear their ugly head—but as preparation for Peter Parker's urban acrobatics in Spiderman, they must have been valuable experiments in aesthetics and technology.

So it's not surprising that Blade III is already in the works-- there's no embarassing sequel setup on screen, maybe, but there is talk of another deal. Marvel has a host of other movies in the pipeline: Spiderman, X-Men II, Hulk (filming now in San Francisco) and Daredevil, for starters.  If all Blade did was help other, much more expensive Marvel adaptations to come out looking great, it might be worth doing, from a busienss standpoint. But, more importantly, the film works well enough to keep drawing audiences—it's a franchise with legs. The third film, when it comes, should be another step up.


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Photos courtesy New Line Productions