To paraphrase Passenger 57: "Always bet on BLADE!" Wesley Snipes was in that. You know, the guy who played Blade. Not here, but in the movies. Look, these blurbs are harder to write than you think, okay?
Blade Is Back!
Blade would be the Rodney Dangerfield of Marvel superheroes…if Rodney were alive. And a tattooed black guy with a sword. That's right: Blade gets no respect. Since his comic book debut in the 1970s Tomb of Dracula series, Blade had been a small, marginal, but constant in the Marvel universe, until the unexpected success of 1998's Wesley Snipes Blade film raised his profile and unofficially kicked off the rebirth of superhero movies, a feat quickly eclipsed by the monumental successes of Spider-Man and X-Men. Blessed by strong journeyman directors in Stephen Norrington and Guillermo del Toro, the first two films, while hardly revolutionary genre fare, built up a respectable character mythology and fan following before throwing it all away in the tepid Blade: Trinity. Blade wasn't faring much better in the comics despite his new recognition; his most recent monthly series lasted only twelve issues-which still makes it the longest running Blade solo series to date. Given the blows to the character and the franchise, a television series on a neophyte cable network (manly-man channel Spike TV), anchored by a rapper who had the distinct disadvantage of not being Wesley Snipes, seemed like a bad idea. Its quick cancellation would seem to verify this, but there's a lot more merit to the blood-and-boobs approach of Blade: The Series than you might think.
Facts of the Case
Picking up an ambiguous amount of time after Blade: Trinity, the series finds half-vampire/half-human vampire hunter Blade (rapper Kirk "Sticky Fingaz" Jones) returning to his birth home of Detroit, where he sets up shop with his snarky, tech-savvy sidekick, Shen (Nelson Lee). Detroit is experiencing a renaissance due to the efforts of philanthropic businessman Marcus Van Sciver (Neil Jackson, Alexander), who is in reality a member of the House of Chthon, a patrician clan of vampires, one of many who operate behind the scenes of the mortal world. After her brother's murder leads her to investigate, Iraqi war vet Krista (Jill Wagner, Punk'd) is drawn into Blade and Van Sciver's war, but which side is she on?
On paper, there's very little promising at all about this series. Conceived by the films' screenwriter and the director of Blade: Trinity, David Goyer, this series essays to, uh, revamp a flagging franchise by eliminating Snipes, unequivocally associated with his role as the title character, and replacing him with an unknown. Stocked with unknown actors (despite a prominent, unbilled cameo in the pilot) and depending on the dubious fortunes of Canada-shot, made-for-cable genre television seems like a risky proposition, especially when factoring in Goyer. Goyer is generally the weakest link of any project with which he's involved (does ANYONE see Batman Begins as less than Christopher Nolan's?), but as keeper of Blade's filmic lore and the man who brought the film franchise to a screeching halt, his involvement's sort of unavoidable. Goyer's involvement is leavened by writer/producer Geoff Johns,a reliable writer who's been one of the better architects of the DC Comics universe (he earlier collaborated with Goyer on DC's JSA comic series). As a fan of the films (or at least Blade II, by "Things in Jars"-era Guillermo del Toro, rather than "Things with Lots of Eyes"-era Guillermo del Toro), it's hard not to see this as a step down, a forced relocation to the cheesy action ghetto of Jean Claude Van Damme direct-to-video movies and giant monster movies made for Sci Fi Channel.
Surprising in the middle of all this doubt and wary pessimism was this: I enjoyed it. The pilot is, as these things typically go, a mixed bag, straining as it does to set up the universe and characters for those who haven't seen the movies or maybe need a refresher course, a universe with specific rules for the supernatural and its protagonist in a version of Detroit that looks suspiciously like Vancouver. The appearance of Jones as Blade is initially jarring, looking like a guy in a well-made Halloween costume at first, followed by the lengthy and meandering personal back story of Krista, who, by the end of the pilot, is ensconced in Van Sciver's Machiavellian House of Chthon and set up as the series' other major player. Even casual viewers may be left wondering where all this is going, why these people are doing what they're doing, and why we're following these characters. Traumatized vet? Fey, Eurotrash vampire? Corrupt cop working for the bad guys? What cliché handbook was all this stolen from?
Very quickly, however, the vampire hierarchy, and Krista's movement within it, becomes the central plotline, and while the politics and veiled alliances of the vampire houses don't become as intricate as, say, The Sopranos (Goyer and Johns admit it was a primary inspiration), the convoluted inner workings of the House of Chthon, and the vampire mythology that was never developed by the movies, takes center stage. The first few episodes take their time finding a proper tone that vacillates between subverting cliché and embracing it, with Blade as stone-cold, one-liner-spouting badass and Van Sciver's brood as bitchy, ponderous, excessively pretentious gentlemen monsters (Anne Rice has a lot to answer for). As the thirteen episodes progress, the series moves less episodically and more like one long movie, unspooling the extent of Van Sciver's plans for Detroit and his own people, and the relationships in and out of the House of Chthon become more complex. By the end, a mostly satisfying confrontation between Blade and Van Sciver (with a cliffhanger that the commentaries indicate isn't as dire as it looks), the viewer is genuinely invested in the fight, waiting to see whose loyalties lie where and whether or not the heroes and villains survive. Not bad for a series based around a monosyllabic ass-kicker.
Ultimately, the casting decisions turn out to be good ones. Jones doesn't inhabit the role in the same way Snipes did, imbuing it as he did with his own aura of barely contained rage, but he gets the snarl and the physicality and the deadpan delivery down so well that you don't really think about it after a few episodes. Poor Wagner, sacrificed to the demographic gods (as is co-star Jessica Gower, as Van Sciver's catty vampiric moll), is often forced into the eye candy role, though she ekes out some genuine character moments between shower scenes and panty shots. Jackson, obeying the Star Wars Rule of Evil British Guys, plays Van Sciver as cool and menacing, where in lesser hands the character would have quickly devolved to parody.
These episodes are billed as "unrated and revamped," which apparently means the use of actual profanity (it's surprising when it first pops up) and the occasional gratuitous tit shot by extras with little shame. There's also no shortage of gore, as an opening arterial spray straight at the camera sets the tone for the bitings, slashings, stabbings, beatings, and torture to come in the series. These changes are evidently so pervasive that only a single episode is marked as "Presented as originally aired." The first disc, containing the series' pilot movie (acting as two "episodes" of the series), appears to be a direct duplicate of the previous single-disc release of the pilot with different label art, including the same outdated trailers and "House Of Chthon," no-really-this-is-a-movie-we-swear-it branding. The entirety of the extras are here and likewise exactly the same as the Blade: House of Chthon release. There are two commentaries, the first by veteran pilot director Peter O'Fallon (American Gothic, Eureka), who comes off as very "just one of the crew" and exults over the joys of HD video filmmaking and Wagner's décolletage. Oddly, there are several spots where it sounds like further sound bites by O'Fallon have been edited in to the commentary. The second commentary, by Goyer and Johns, is similarly chummy in tone (the two are both Michigan natives and longtime friends). Goyer and Johns are less afraid to point out the compromises and frustrations of bringing action-horror films to serial format with a basic cable budget, but like O'Fallon, the two seem just happy to be there, and both speak of bar-hopping after shooting and critique the gratuitous nudity (maybe Spike was the right place for this show after all). "Turning Blade," a lengthy making-of, chronicles the birth pains of the show in detail, while a bevy of TV spots round out the extras.
Picture quality is good-O'Fallon may have been on to something with his praise of HD video-though there are several noticeable instances of aliasing throughout the episodes. The 5.1 sound is likewise good, a dense mix with propulsive music and bone-crunching effects taking precedence over the dialogue, which is only appropriate, all things considered.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite its surprising merits, it's easy to see why the series failed to make it past its first season and alienated viewers. Blade is frequently made a supporting character in his own show, losing screen time to Krista and the intricate machinations of Van Sciver within the vampire hierarchy. It's called Blade: The Series, not Conflicted Vampire Chick in a Low-Cut Dress: The Series. As interesting as a lot of the double-crosses and back-room deals are, it strays far from the core concept that kept the films concise in their dealings with vampire politics. For every innovative piece of plotting or subversion of vampire lore-using vampire ash as a drug is a particularly nice plot device-there's a hoary horror convention there to rear its head, including the loose cannon cop who knows too much (in this case, an FBI agent who exists as an unrewarding subplot) and a creepy child-vampire (Chthon elder Charlotte) straight from Interview with the Vampire (I've already warned Anne Rice once).
Plus, that whole "Vampire turns their own mother into one" plot (Episode 8, "Sacrifice") is totally stolen from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And not unlike Underworld, vampire aficionados will notice more than a little resemblance between Blade's twelve vampire houses and the "destined to rule" House of Chthon and White Wolf Publishing's World of Darkness and the "blueblood" Ventrue Clan(and is, really, a better representation of that world than the equally short-lived Kindred: The Embraced).
The elements that made Blade: The Series work are also the things that damn it: Spike TV, and by extension its audience, wanted quips and brainless action, not a sprawling, morally ambiguous crime saga where the hero is often subsumed by his supporting cast (though I doubt anyone objected to the explosions and teasing eroticism). Under a different name and shorn of its extraneous elements, this might have done well on airing, but as it stands it's an interesting pop culture curio that will probably find its fans on DVD, just not necessarily Blade fans.
Would it be too much of a pun to call this a "guilty pleasure"?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary on "Pilot" by Director Peter O'Fallon
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