Sunday, September 21, 2008

Blade: Trinity (2004)

Superheroes come in all shapes, all sizes, and with all kinds of special abilities. But none are quite like Blade. Instead of fighting megalomaniacs, aliens, insane clowns, or green goblins, Blade's enemies are those classic villains, vampires. Himself a half-vampire, it's Blade's job to eliminate every supernatural bloodsucker he comes across. Though Blade is a relatively obscure character in the Marvel Comics pantheon, New Line Cinema bought the movie rights to the character and released a live-action adaptation in 1998.

Though the movie was only a moderate financial success, its impact is still being felt ten years later. I spoke of this in my review of it, but Blade revolutionized the entire superhero movie genre. Bryan Singer's X-Men might get the lion's share of the glory due to both the Blade character's lack of notoriety and X-Men's genre-revolutionizing special effects, but Blade truly got the ball rolling. A sequel was released in 2002, which turned out to be even more popular than its predecessor. So reasoning that they should probably ride this money train as long as they could, New Line released a third movie, Blade: Trinity, in 2004. It might not be as good as Blade II, but it's not so bad.

Our story naturally picks up sometime after the events of Blade II, and the tireless vampire slayer Blade (Wesley Snipes) is continuing his seemingly unending war against the vampire race. Realizing that they're on the losing side of this war, a group of vampires have concocted a plan to turn the tables on their foe. As he tears through a vampire hideout, Blade is tricked into killing a normal human being used as bait. News footage of this is used to spin Blade as a psychotic serial killer, shooting him to the top of the FBI's most wanted list. The FBI manages to track Blade to his hidden compound, and although his sidekick Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) sacrifices himself in the ensuing fracas, Blade is defeated and taken into police custody.

But as certain vampire-sympathetic police officers prepare to hand Blade over to the vampire sect who set him up, they're interrupted by Hannibal King (Ryan Reynolds) and Whistler's long-lost daughter Abigail (Jessica Biel). The duo breaks Blade out, rushing him back to their own hideout. There, they introduce him to their own ragtag group of vampire slayers, dubbed "the Nightstalkers." Though initially reluctant to join the Nightstalkers due to their relative inexperience, Blade agrees to partner with them after Hannibal reveals himself to be a former vampire who had been cured. During the following grand tour of the Nightstalker facility, they tell Blade of their discovery that Danica Talos (Parker Posey) and her posse of bloodsuckers have found and awakened the ancient — and the very first — vampire known as Dracula (Dominic Purcell), who now answers to the name "Drake." With Drake on their side, Danica hopes that they can finally eliminate Blade and instigate the vampire version of the "final solution."

To combat this newfound threat, the Nightstalkers have developed a biological weapon they've named the Daystar. The Daystar is designed to kill any and every vampire in the nearby area, but there's two catches. The first is that they need to add some of Drake's blood to the Daystar recipe. Because he is the progenitor of the entire vampire race, his pure blood could maximize the Daystar's potency. The second catch: Because of Blade's unique situation as a half-vampire, the Daystar could possibly kill him too. But that is a risk Blade is willing to take if it means another step towards winning his fight against vampires.

Since its release in 2004, Blade: Trinity has often been referred to as the weakest chapter in the Blade trilogy. And I can't really argue with that, because it's the truth. From both a critical and a financial standpoint, Blade: Trinity was the least successful of the entire trilogy. But I don't think it's the truly bad movie that critics like Roger Ebert and the like might have you believe. Sure, it isn't as great as it could have been. But I still thought it was a fun, enjoyable movie in spite of the flaws it may have. I liked it, and I'll make an attempt tell you why.

Let's start with the direction from David Goyer. Goyer steps into the director's chair after Blade II director Guillermo Del Toro passed on the job so he could make Hellboy, and I have to applaud him for taking a shot. He'd only helmed one other movie prior to this, and his inexperience shows. However, Goyer also shows signs of competence as a director too. He gets some fine camerawork from cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, and he succeeds in maintaining a relatively quick pace so that the movie never lulls for too long at any given time.

There are a few scenes that could have stood being trimmed or cut entirely, like the revelation of the "vampire final solution" and the scene where Drake kills two unassuming Goth kids just because they were selling crappy Dracula merchandise. But outside of that, I didn't think Goyer did that bad of a job as director. I also liked the music composed by Ramin Djwadi and The RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. Their hip hop and techno-oriented score suits the movie well. Their music fits the tone that Goyer was aiming for, and really backs up the visuals.

Meanwhile, Goyer's script isn't too bad, but it isn't really as strong as it could have been. Could it be that after writing the first two movies in the trilogy, Goyer simply ran out of steam? It just seems that the jokes are way too plentiful (and in some cases, way too lame), some scenes don't contribute as much to the overall narrative as they could, and Drake doesn't really come across as the end-all, be-all of enemies. He just doesn't feel all that threatening. And why do they say he changed his name from "Dracula" to "Drake"? What's so wrong with just calling him Dracula? Was there some kind of copyright problem where they were only allowed to call him Dracula once or twice? If Buffy the Vampire Slayer can fight a vampire that's actually named Dracula, then why can't Blade? Sigh.

Lastly is the cast, most of whom do as fine a job as they can. Wesley Snipes is once again engaging as the titular vampire hunter. The character's evolution from stoic, emotionless badass to snarky tough guy — an evolution that began in Blade II — seems complete here, and Snipes handles the role with a certain enthusiasm. I know in retrospect that Snipes was less than thrilled with Blade: Trinity for reasons that include his screen time being cut in order to place more emphasis on the Nightstalkers, but that doesn't change the fact that they couldn't have asked for a better person to play Blade.

I also enjoyed Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds as Blade's new backup. Biel is credible as Abigail Whistler, giving the character a tough courageousness that makes her thoroughly likeable. And Reynolds... well, if you've seen practically any of Ryan Reynolds's movies, you know what to expect from him. The role was supposedly specifically written with his comedic talents in mind, so he's able to comfortably assume the role of Hannibal King and make it his own. The only really bad part is that virtually every word he says and every move he makes is some kind of wisecrack. After a while, you begin to think that the character is just a cheap one-trick pony, and you just want him to shut up for two seconds and be serious.

The rest of the cast is something of a mixed bag. Parker Posey and pro wrestler Triple H are both effective in their roles as members of the vampire clan trying to vanquish Blade, and Patton Oswalt is funny is what is essentially an extended cameo as the armorer for the Nightstalkers. And once again, I enjoyed Kris Kristofferson's performance, despite his glaring lack of screen time. I'm disappointed that Goyer felt the need to kill his character off, especially so early in the movie, but Kristofferson still plays the role like a champ.

But the only member of the extended cast who I wasn't really impressed by was Dominic Purcell as Drake. If his performance was a dog, they'd have taken him out behind the shed and shot him. Drake is perhaps the least frightening depiction of Dracula that I've personally ever seen, thanks to a combination of poor writing and Purcell's poor acting. Seriously, Leslie Nielson made a better Dracula in Dracula: Dead and Loving It than Purcell did in Blade: Trinity. And that's terrible.

David Goyer handles Blade: Trinity differently than the directors of the prior Blade movies. It isn't the gritty, no-nonsense action movie that Stephen Norrington made, or the would-be Brothers Grimm tale that Guillermo Del Toro crafted. Instead, Goyer gives us something that is style over substance, an odd amalgamation of elements of the first two movies with a glossier, mainstream sheen and a silly sense of humor. That's why Blade: Trinity is often looked at as the trilogy's redheaded stepchild. (But that's still better than the television series, which could be viewed as the franchise's answer to Cousin Oliver.) I still thought it was an amusing movie in spite of its flaws, so I'll give it three stars on my Five Star Sutton Scale. Now if only Wesley Snipes would stay out of legal trouble for them to make Blade 4...

Final Rating: ***

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Blade II (2002)

There once was a time when superhero movies weren't the money-making juggernauts they are today. In that day and age, you could count the number of truly good superhero movies on one hand and have fingers left over. But times change. The superhero movie genre underwent a dramatic change at the turn of the twenty-first century, and it's all thanks to the movie Blade. The titular vampire slayer from the pages of Marvel Comics is neither a mainstream nor a traditional superhero by any means, but when the live-action movie he inspired was released to theaters in 1998, its success prompted movie studios to take a fresh look at how they adapted comic book properties into feature films.

And of course, the success of Blade meant that New Line Cinema wouldn't hesitate in approving a sequel. That sequel — the appropriately-titled Blade II — greatly improves upon its predecessor by not only trying to avoid Blade's flaws, but delivering more of what we'd expect: lots of vampires, exciting action, and good old-fashioned violence.

Two years have passed since the events of the first movie, time that Blade (Wesley Snipes) has spent searching for the missing body of his lost mentor, Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). He eventually finds his old friend in the Czech Republic, turned into a vampire and kept alive in suspended animation. Bringing Whistler back to his base of operations, Blade administers an accelerated version of the anti-vampirism cure developed in the first movie. The cure works, and while Whistler is grateful to be a human again, he isn't exactly enthused with some of the changes made to he and Blade's operation in his absence.

And by that, I mean Whistler is less than impressed by Blade's choice in a new sidekick, a disrespectful goon named Scud (Norman Reedus). But while Whistler and Scud squabble, a bigger problem presents itself when two vampires infiltrate their hideout and propose a temporary truce with Blade. He agrees to this truce, and the vampire pair escort him to the fortress of Eli Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann), an ancient vampire elder.

He brings to Blade's attention Jared Nomak (Luke Goss), an incredibly violent vampire who is spreading a new, evolved form of vampirism named "the Reaper virus." Nomak's bloodlust drives him to not only attack humans, but vampires as well. Nomak is slowly but surely infecting others with the Reaper virus, and its spread threatens both the human and vampire races. Damaskinos and his clan offer to temporarily suspend their hostilities with Blade and partner with him in order to combat Nomak and the growing number of Reapers he has created. Blade accepts, entering into an uneasy alliance with Damaskinos's daughter Nyssa (Leoner Varela) and a squad of vampire assassins known as the Bloodpack. But as Blade and the Bloodpack prepare to wage war with Nomak, secrets soon come bubbling to the surface that ally against ally.

I enjoyed the first Blade movie, but that didn't change the fact that it had its share of flaws. Blade II improves upon its predecessor's methods, operating with more focus, greatly improved special effects, and more imagination. Now that's not to say that this movie doesn't have its own flaws, but that doesn't stop it from being an entertaining piece of action cinema. Blade II might still just be your typical modern action movie, but it is handled in such a way that puts it at a higher quality than other movies such as this. It's also a stronger movie than Blade, so let's get into what makes it that way, shall we?

A lot of the movie's fantastic quality comes from the work of director Guillermo Del Toro. He's no stranger to vampires, as his debut movie — the 1993 Mexican flick Chronos — also delves into the realm of undead bloodsuckers. But Blade II is a much different beast than the other, more fantasy-oriented work that Del Toro is known for. It is, as I said, pretty much a straightforward action movie with vampires as the villains. However, Del Toro is a very artistic filmmaker, which means good things for Blade II. The movie is visually astounding, with stunning camerawork (thanks to cinematographer Gabriel Beristain), CGI and special effects that have vastly improved upon the original movie's, and a Brothers Grimm-like tone.

Blade II might not be the same kind of glorified fairy tale like Pan's Labyrinth or the Hellboy movies, but Del Toro's work here gives the movie that sort of vibe. There's a reason why Blade II is considered by quite a few people to be the best chapter in the trilogy, and I'd reason to bet that Del Toro's direction is the reason why. There's also some great music composed by Marco Beltrami that, when combined with the hip hop songs comprising the soundtrack, the movie boasts an auditory experience that greatly backs up the visual one.

Next up is the screenplay, penned once again by David S. Goyer. Goyer seems to have learned from the mistakes made in the first Blade movie by eschewing some of the cheesy, over-the-top dialogue and characters that were so prevalent. Goyer's script does include a joke or two that don't really work, a character who is quite annoying, and a twist regarding one character's allegiances that is both lame and obvious in retrospect. But other than that, Goyer's script is tighter and more streamlined, more focused. He actually works harder in order to create intimidating villains and characters you can root for.

But as I said, there are weak spots in the script, particularly the occasional gaping hole in the movie's logic. The biggest one is at the very beginning of the movie, when the two vampires deliver their message of a truce to Blade. They sneak into the building dressed like ninjas, then engage in a fight with Blade. I know it was done to add a little excitement to the movie, but for their own sake, wouldn't it have been easier for the two characters to simply knock on the door and deliver the message without having to be so sneaky about it? What if Blade had killed them before they could say anything? Then their whole mission would have been shot, and it would have blown the entire movie within the first twenty minutes. Maybe I'm looking too deeply into things, but seriously, it's the little things that get noticed the most.

Last but not least is the cast. As with the prior movie, the acting portion of Blade II is primarily dominated by Wesley Snipes. He's not as stoic nor as conflicted as he was previously. Instead, Snipes seems more focused on making Blade the ultimate ass-kicker. Through Snipes's performance, we get the impression that Blade is having fun hunting vampires, offering the occasional bit of sarcastic trash talk while reducing his bloodsucking foes to piles of ash. And because of his engaging, charismatic performance, Snipes draws us in and makes the movie as a whole more entertaining.

The rest of the cast, for the most part, do well too. Kris Kristofferson is once again amusing as Blade's perpetually grumpy sidekick and father figure, while Ron Perlman is fun as a member of the Bloodpack that finds great amusement in antagonizing Blade. I also thought Leoner Varela was engaging in her role as a potential love interest for our hero, while Thomas Kretschmann did a fine job playing the creepy vampire elder. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention Luke Goss as our lead villain. Goss's performance as the vampire's vampire is everything that Stephen Dorff wasn't in the first movie: intimidating, no-nonsense, and just plain scary. Goss is great, one of the movie's real bright spots.

However, I'd be lying if I said that I thought all of the cast put forth their best efforts. I don't know whether it's the actor's fault or Goyer's fault for the creation of such an irritating character, but every second Norman Reedus was in a scene, I wanted him to go away. That's one misfire that's managed to carry over from Blade into Blade II: the annoying sidekick. I don't see the necessity for that same character archetype to be used again, something that isn't helped by the fact that if I could have, I'd have reached into the screen and smacked the Scud character every time I saw him. Though I will admit that the character being such a pain in the neck makes his final fate that much more gratifying.

That aside, Blade II is quite simply a fun and entertaining movie from start to finish. The cast and crew should be proud of themselves for putting together such a solid movie. Sure, Blade isn't among the most recognizable characters in Marvel's stable of superheroes, but that doesn't stop Blade II from being a fun way to spend two hours of your time. It's everything that you could want to see in a movie cut from this kind of cloth. So on the patent-pending Five-Star Sutton Scale, Blade II earns a solid four stars. Go check it out, and you'll see what I mean.

Final Rating: ****