Thursday, August 14, 2008

Blade (1998)

Comic books are a medium primarily dominated by superheroes. Anyone why tries telling you otherwise is either a fool or a liar. But while the majority of them wear spandex costumes and have fantastic powers like flight or super-strength, others deviate greatly from that mold. They might be called "superheroes," but the supernatural nature of both their origins and the enemies they face are what sets them apart from their caped brethren. Perhaps the most notable of these heroes is Blade, the resident vampire hunter at Marvel Comics.

Created in 1973 by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, Blade was a frequent supporting character in Tomb of Dracula, while making semi-occasional appearances in Marvel's other horror comics at the time. His visibility dropped during the '80s after Tomb of Dracula was cancelled, but he regained into his share of the spotlight through a number of miniseries and one-shot comics published in the early '90s.

Blade has never been one of Marvel's A-list characters (or even one of their B-list characters, if you want my opinion on it), but that didn't stop New Line Cinema from purchasing the movie rights. And let me tell you, folks, if you want to know what got the ball started on the current superhero genre, you can point the finger directly at this movie.

We begin with a brief prologue in 1967. A pregnant woman (Sanaa Lathan) is rushed into a hospital's emergency room, hemorrhaging blood after being bitten by a vampire. The trauma ends up inducing labor, and she dies giving birth. Thirty years pass, and that baby has become a prolific vampire hunter known as Blade (Wesley Snipes). Thanks to a genetic alteration passed to him by the bite that killed his mother, Blade is known amongst the vampire underworld as "the Daywalker," a vampire/human hybrid with all of a vampire's strengths and only one of their weaknesses: the thirst for blood. Keeping the thirst at bay with a serum developed by his cantankerous weaponsmith and mentor, Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade has made it his life's work to destroy every bloodsucker he comes across.

While tracking a vampire one night, Blade crosses paths with Dr. Karen Jenson (N'Bushe Wright), a hematologist whom the vampire had bitten. He brings the injured doctor back to his lair and patches her up, but can ultimately do nothing to prevent Dr. Jenson from eventually becoming a vampire herself. Not willing to resign herself to that fate, she begins working on a cure. Her work leads her to discover an anticoagulant that causes a violently fatal allergic reaction in vampires. So violently fatal, in fact, that it makes them explode.

Blade arms himself with darts filled with this anticoagulant to use as weapons, and he's going to need them. A brash, impudent vampire named Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) has grown tired of living in the shadows, believing that vampires should rise up and enslave humanity. And to achieve this lofty goal, Frost seeks to instigate his answer to the apocalypse. To do so, he plans on harnessing the power of an ancient god known "La Magra" so that he might wipe humanity off the face of the planet.

Prior to Blade, movies based on Marvel Comics properties weren't really all that great. Those that had seen production were awful beyond words. We'd seen Captain America with rubber ears, Johnny Storm depicted as cheesy animation, Lea Thompson making out with Howard the Duck, and David Hasselhoff in an eye patch. Dolph Lundgren's Punisher movie was the only one out of the bunch that was halfway watchable, and even that was no great shakes. Even DC's movies were struggling at the time, thanks to the one-two punch of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. But when Blade came along, that all changed. Sure, the first X-Men movie may get all the glory, but Blade was definitely the catalyst for the superhero movie genre as we know it today. The movie isn't a perfect one, but it's definitely a solid venture that's exciting and entertaining, which is exactly what it needs to be.

Let's hit up the direction first. Stephen Norrington hasn't had what you'd call a prolific career as a director, but he sure gives the impression of someone who knows exactly what kind of movie he wants to make. His work is slick and stylish, coming just a year before the Matrix trilogy turned the idea of fast-paced fight scenes pitting guys in sunglasses and trenchcoats against a big group of people into a cliché. Norrington (and his cinematographer, Theo Van De Sande) use long tracking shots, odd angles, and quick editing to help establish the tone of the movie, while utilizing shadows and a pale blue-gray color palate to enhance the atmosphere in many scenes. The enhancement of the atmosphere is also helped by the fine score composed by Mark Isham. I've made note in numerous reviews of my firm belief that, if used properly, music can go a long way in helping a movie in telling its story. Isham's music accomplishes that, helping to create an auditory experience that is equal to the visual one. Even the techno music used on the soundtrack works well too, but after a while, it kinda started to give me a headache.

But not everything about the production is aces. My main gripe is with the downright ugly CGI. Now I'll admit that for the majority of the movie, the CGI is relatively solid. But during the climactic final battle between Blade and Deacon Frost, there's two instances where it's so awful that it brings down the quality of the rest of the movie. It doesn't even look fake. It looks worse than fake. It looks... cheap. You know how a lot of supermarkets will sell crappy imitation versions of name-brand cereals? The CGI in that fight scene is the cinematic equivalent of those imitation cereals. Yeah, it might get the job done in a pinch, but it just doesn't have the same quality as the better stuff. The CGI looks half-finished, like they stopped working on it at some arbitrary point during the process. To sum it all up with another metaphor, the digital effects team could have used Photoshop and went with Microsoft Paint instead.

Next up is the screenplay, written by David Goyer. One of several superhero movies written by Goyer over the years, Blade doesn't really need much of a story. And truth be told, it doesn't really have much of one, either. The movie and its sequels are defined by their action sequences, not their writing. But that doesn't stop Goyer from doing as fine a job as he can here. Yeah, we do end up with some corny dialogue and a couple of characters who could have been removed with no major effect on the movie as a whole, but his writing didn't completely suck.

And I have to credit him with giving us a style of vampire that I personally hadn't seen before. The vampires of Blade are almost like the Mafia, an underground society making back-alley deals and getting involved with things like politics and law enforcement, all to further their grip on society. And there's also the familiars, humans loyal to vampires and marked with tattoos as if they were branded cattle. It's definitely a take on vampires that you don't see everyday.

Finally, there's Blade's cast. You really can't talk about the cast in any of the Blade movies without first talking about the franchise's leading man, Wesley Snipes. Snipes plays Blade with a certain macho ambiguity that makes Blade an intriguing character to follow. His performance gives off the impression that the character's outward appearance of a hardcore vampire killer is a cover for a deeper conflict within him. It makes it a little hard to connect with him since he isn't laying all his cards on the table, but Snipes's performance makes it easy to cheer for him when he's kicking all that vampire butt.

It's also easy to like Kris Kristofferson as Whistler, Blade's gruff, grizzled sidekick. Kristofferson is a lot of fun in the role, and he practically steals every scene he's in. Stephen Dorff, meanwhile, is watchable and suitably over the top in his role. Unfortunately, thanks to how the character of Deacon Frost is written, Dorff comes off not as an intimidating, ferocious villain, but as impetuous young punk trying to steal a little glory for himself. It isn't all Dorff's fault, though, and his work is acceptable in my eyes.

The fourth member of the leading cast, N'Bushe Wright, is... well... she's not all that great. Matter of fact, she's pretty darn bad. The character of Karen Jenson serves its purpose within two or three scenes, yet continues to stick around for the rest of the movie without any reason to do so. Yeah, sure, she's there so the necessary exposition could be explained to the audience, but I'm sure that it could have been handled in such a way that would have made it feel more organic. And it doesn't help that Wright has all the charisma of a wet mop, not to mention that her performance is so wooden, you'd think that they'd hired a tree to play the role. The more she was onscreen, the more I wanted a vampire to show up and tear her head off.

There is no deeper meaning to Blade. It doesn't have any sort of hidden social commentary or message. It doesn't elevate the cinematic discourse. But Blade is appealing because sometimes, you just want to see a movie where a character beats the snot out of as many people as he possibly can between the opening and closing credits. It works on a visceral level, and in spite of its flaws, the whole thing gels together to make a thoroughly energetic, entertaining experience. It is a movie that not everyone will find themselves liking, but those there do will have enjoyed themselves by the end of it. So I'm going to give Blade three and a half stars and a thumbs up.

Final Rating: ***½

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Iron Man (2008)

Not every superhero is blessed with otherworldly powers. They all don't have the X-Men's various mutations, the arachnid ability of Spider-Man, or the multitude of powers at Superman's disposal. Some have to get by on natural talent alone, or in some instances, they create their own powers via fancy gadgets. Such is the case of Tony Stark, known more commonly as Iron Man.

Created by writers Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, and artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby, Iron Man made his first appearance in 1963, in Tales of Suspense #39. The armor-wearing hero began targeting Communism, but as the world evolved, so did Iron Man. He's struggled with alcoholism and a bad heart, was a charter member of the superhero all-star squad known as the Avengers, and was even regarded by many readers as Marvel's top villain during the company's epic "Civil War" story in 2007. And though it may have taken a while to get around to him, Iron Man finally followed in the footsteps of numerous Marvel heroes when his very own movie kicked off 2008's summer blockbuster season. And guess what? It's a fantastic movie.

Billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has it all. Money, fame, fast cars, beautiful women, all that awesome stuff. He's also developed a reputation as the world's leading purveyor of military weaponry thanks to the success of his company, Stark Industries. While in Afghanistan to demonstrate his company's new missile, his convoy is attacked and Stark is kidnapped.

His abductors — a terrorist group identifying themselves as the Ten Rings — order him to build them a missile of their own, using a stockpile of Stark Industries technology acquired through nefarious means. Under the guise of crafting their weapon, he and fellow captive Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub) spend the next three months building a powerful suit of armor to facilitate their escape. Though Yinsen is killed during their breakout, Stark fights his way through the terrorists, destroys their stockpile of weapons, and gets away.

Stark is greeted by devoted assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), an old friend who holds a high-ranking position in the Air Force, upon his return to the United States. But the effects his abduction have had upon him begin to reveal themselves via a noticeable change in his demeanor. Rattled by the fact that both sides of the Middle Eastern conflict have access to the weapons his company has engineered, his plane home is barely on the ground before he announces the dissolution of the Stark Industries weapons division. The announcement causes the company's stock to plummet, and Stark's hard-nosed business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) makes it no secret that he's displeased by this turn of events.

But Stark remains undaunted in his decision. Having seen his company's weapons fall into the hands of the Ten Rings, Stark sets forth to refine and improve his armor so that he might use it to eliminate the caches of Stark Industries weapons being hoarded by terrorists. And he's picked the right time to do it, because Stane's backdoor dealings in regards to the company's weapons division have evolved from shady to downright sinister.

Iron Man is, at its core, your typical superhero origin story. But the differences between this and other, similar movies is the way that it's told. Sure, there's the moments that will make devoted comic book fans giddy, but it's the kind of movie that even those who are completely unfamiliar with Iron Man or comics in general can walk into and enjoy. Making a movie such as this has allowed director Jon Favreau and his cast and crew to create one of the most entertaining and engaging comic book adaptations ever made. It's a downright fun movie from start to finish. Nearly everything about it is effective and makes Iron Man worth watching.

The movie marks Favreau's first action movie as a director, and teaming with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he shows that there's more in his repertoire than comedies and family movies. You'd never know Favreau was an action movie rookie by watching Iron Man, because he keeps the pace brisk and the action exciting while inserting the humor at just the right places.

It helps that the movie boasts some incredible visual effects from Industrial Light and Magic, with assistance from effects studios The Orphanage and The Embassy. Their work is slick, at times looking so convincing that it's hard to tell the difference between the CGI and the practical effects. And those practical effects are quite good, specifically the Iron Man and Iron Monger suits designed by the late Stan Winston. Inspired by the work of comic book artist Avi Granov, the armor looks superb, some of the best superhero and supervillain costumes I've seen in quite a while.

I also really liked the original music composed by Ramin Djawady. The rock-oriented music perfectly carried the onscreen happenings while being exciting in its own right, especially when combined with the heavy metal stylings of AC/DC, Suicidal Tendencies, and Black Sabbath. My only real complaint with Djawady's music is the lack of a memorable theme song. Yes, there are some recurring musical elements, but nothing that really stands out.

That's the big problem with most modern comic book movies, especially those inspired by Marvel properties. Sure, Spider-Man's movies had a theme song, but did you leave the theater humming the tune, like you would with John Williams's Superman music or Danny Elfman's Batman music? Outside of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and Djawady's various interpolations of the jazzy theme song from the Iron Man cartoon that ran in syndication at the end of 1966, I couldn't really pick up anything that would get stuck in my head. It might be the most obvious answer, but maybe they should stick with Black Sabbath as the franchise's theme song? Of course, I'm fully expecting the use of Kiss's "War Machine" to turn up in future Iron Man movies. You comic nerds know what I'm getting at.

Next up is the screenplay, credited to Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway. I'm not quite sure just how much of the final script actually ended up in the movie, thanks to not only Favreau and Robert Downey Jr.'s contributions to the writing process, but Favreau's encouragement of improvisation during filming. This ends up being a good thing, though, because it makes the interaction between the actors feel more natural, more real. However, what the script definitely does contribute to the movie is well done. The inside jokes referring to notable parts of Iron Man's history on the printed page are a nice touch, and I felt the initial red herring in regards to the identity of the movie's villain was well done.

The real draw of the script, however, is how it treats the title character. It seems like in most superhero origin movies, the lead character immediately becomes a straight-laced crimefighter as soon as he adopts his new identity. But that isn't quite the case with Iron Man. Tony Stark might have become a hero, but gaining a conscience and a little maturity doesn't mean he's immediately going to stop his boozing, womanizing, high-rolling behavior. Personally, I think it makes for a more believable way to begin the story of a superhero.

Last, but most certainly not least, is the movie's greatest component: its cast. Boy, what an impressive group of actors and actresses Iron Man has. Every person that steps in front of the camera is up to the task given to them, no matter how important or insignificant their role is. The movie is strengthened by their positive contributions to it, so yeah, they'll all get a thumbs up from me. Let's begin with our star, Robert Downey Jr. I know many movie reviewers, both in print and online, have commented on the irony of hiring an actor who's had a prolonged battle with drug addiction to play an alcoholic superhero. And it is funny in an odd sense.

But while Tony Stark's alcoholism isn't a major factor in the movie, it does give Downey a way to connect to the character. And not only does he make a connection, he jumps into the role headfirst. I can't imagine anybody else playing the role, because Downey is perfect in it. I know it will sound like hyperbole, but hiring Downey to play Iron Man has to be one of the most inspired bits of casting in the history of the genre. Downey is fun to watch, playing the role as (in Downey's own words) a "likeable asshole." You honestly can't not like him. He's so good in the role that the supporting cast almost becomes completely ancillary. It's most assuredly one of the most entertaining performances to come along in quite a while, and the entire movie is better for it.

But let's not forget the rest of the cast, whom all put forth fine performances. Gwyneth Paltrow is very charming as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark's "Girl Friday." Paltrow wouldn't have been very high on the list of people I would have expected to star in a superhero movie (even if she does have unsophisticated flicks like Shallow Hal and View From The Top on her résumé), but hiring her proved to be quite beneficial to the movie. She brings a certain warmth to the role that makes her that much more endearing and amiable. It helps that she and Downey also have an engaging chemistry together, their scenes coming across as flirtatious even at their most innocent. Considering that pretty much sums up the entire relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, Downey and Paltrow did a fantastic job together.

I also have to say that I thought Terrence Howard did some fine work as Jim Rhodes. Unfortunately, thanks to the amount of time spent developing Downey's character, Howard's screen time is limited. It's not like they edited him out of the movie or anything, but Howard's presence doesn't seem very... prevalent, I guess is the word I'm looking for. However, Howard does put forth a solid performance, and it's a shame that he only gets maybe forty-five minutes of screen time, if that.

Jeff Bridges is also solid as the sleazy, and thoroughly unethical, businessman Obadiah Stane. The character isn't really all that developed, and it seems like he was only stuck into the movie in order to give Iron Man a villain to fight at the end of the movie. That doesn't deter Bridges, though. He plays the role exactly needs to be played, as a greedy, power-hungry yuppie. It's like Bridges decided play the role as if he were Gordon Gecko from Wall Street, only as a 21st-century weapons dealer instead of a mid-'80s stock broker.

Other ancillary members of the supporting cast — particularly Faran Tahir as the leader of Stark's abductors, Shaun Taub as Stark's cellmate in Afghanistan, and Leslie Bibb as a Vanity Fair reporter — all do fine work as well, surrounding the strong main characters with credible support.

Iron Man is not only a fantastic comic book adaptation, but a great movie in general. It can not only appeal to comic readers with its inside jokes and references to Iron Man's history, but it's also open enough so that non-fans can have fun watching it without feeling like they have to catch up on forty-five years of comic book adventures. Iron Man is, without a doubt, a thoroughly entertaining motion picture from beginning to end.

With outstanding direction, flashy special effects, and stellar acting, Iron Man is a good step forward on the road to proving that superhero movies can be created for and enjoyed by people other than your typical dorky fanboys like yours truly. And even if it wasn't, it'd still be one heck of a movie. So on my patent pending Five-Star Sutton Scale, I'm going to give Iron Man four stars and my stamp of approval. Go check it out.

Final Rating: ****