Sunday, June 30, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #5: Blade II

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 67/B
Loren’s Grade: A- (he doesn’t use the same idiotic 100-point scale I use)

Loren Greenblatt: Alright, we’re back, and we just finished Blade II: Blade Sharper (if only it were really called that). This is Del Toro’s wonderfully stylized monster-mash vampire movie sequel to Stephen Norrington’s pretty okay 1998 film Blade, which starred Wesley Snipes as the vampire hunter Blade and Kris Kristofferson as his mentor Whistler.

Max O’Connell: This one came about in an interesting way. David S. Goyer, who wrote all three of the Blade movies (as well as Batman Begins) and directed the terrible third film, Blade: Trinity, got to writing the second film just as the comic book movie craze was heating up. This came out the same year Spider-Man really kicked things into high gear. He was looking for a new director, and he and New Line Cinema really liked Del Toro, so they grabbed him. This is the only Del Toro film where he didn’t have a hand in writing the script, because he felt it suited his sensibility so well that it wasn’t necessary.

LG: And it really does. This doesn't feel like a gun-for-hire job one bit.

MO: Basic plot- Blade is a vampire hunter. He's called the Daywalker, he's half-vampire himself, he has vampire powers but none of their weaknesses except for the need for blood. But he’s found a way to get past it with this serum that he made with Kristofferson. He’s still at war with the vampires, but they form a truce because of a new kind of vampire called the Reaper, a vampire that feeds on vampires who're threatening to overrun the entire world. Furthermore, after the Reaper bites vampires, it turns them into Reapers.

LG: As if that weren't gloriously silly enough, to hunt the Reapers Blade bands together with the Blood Pack, an elite S.W.A.T. team of vampires who were originally trained to hunt and kill Blade. They're a flashy group. Some of whom we don’t get to know that well, but we don’t really need to. They’re entertaining enough as types: big Nordic guy, Asian one, coolheaded black guy, alt-girl with the funky hair, you get the idea.

MO: There's kind of a Cameron influence there- just because we don’t know the characters who are going to be monster food doesn’t make them thin. We're only shown know what’s important about them for the movie.  But there’s two central ones: Nyssa (Leonor Varela), the daughter of the vampire leader (who looks an awful lot like a cross between Nosferatu and the marble vampires in Cronos) and Reinhardt played by Ron Perlman, the alpha male of the Blood Pack, who doesn’t like Blade very much, and not just because he’s got this Aryan Nation thing going on.

LG: Yeah, he asks Blade if he can blush. I liked the way Del Toro uses these scenes to mock the alpha male mentality between Perlman and Snipes- he knows that this is just a bit silly with the macho stuff. It’s a little undercut by how much the film builds up Blade as the kind of macho badass, but hey, Del Toro’s dealing with an established franchise, he's not trying to completely reinvent it the way Cameron did with Aliens. He's just doing it better with a greater sense of humor.

MO: They’re also joined by some of Blade’s friends, both old and new. The new guy is Scud, a weapons specialist played by Norman Reedus, who’s most famous for those terrible Boondock Saints movies, but let’s ignore that, because he’s a lot of fun here.

LG: Scud is essentially Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, but instead of meth, he's  obsessed with The PowerPuff Girls and building anti-vampire weapons. He is Blade’s new sidekick after Kris Kristofferson’s Whistler went missing in the last one. Now I was under the impression that Whistler died in Blade, but nope, we got a retcon! Instead of committing honorable suicide off screen he was turned into a vampire and is found at the beginning of this film by Blade in a gigantic jar of blood. Blade may not look like your typical scientist (what with his leather vest, leather pants and presumably leather socks), but nonetheless he devises a reverse serum to cure Whistler by making him quit cold turkey, because like Cronos, vampirism is played up as an addiction. For instance, vampires snort powdered blood like cocaine, and the other serum that Blade uses on himself to curb his bloodlust which is essentially played as a methadone-type drug.

MO: When Nyssa sees this, she chastises Blade for not having made peace with what he is like she has. It’s an interesting point. We might be able to use more of it, but it’s good for what it is. As for the reapers, they’re described as crack addicts who have to feed over and over again in order to get an insane vampire high, so to speak.

LG: Let’s talk about the Reapers. They are a wonderful mishmash of monster tropes. They’re vampires, they have zombie-like traits, they swarm like the monsters in Aliens. They’re a bit like the bugs in Mimic, but with personality. The leader of the Reapers, Nomak, passes like a vampire-human. It’s like if the mimic bugs could actually blend in worth a damn! He’s taking good ideas from his weakest movies and making them work. There’s a scene where they descend into the sewers that’s a lot like Mimic or Aliens, but it’s still very distinctive, and it’s gorgeous.

MO: It’s like a souped-up Mimic meets Aliens meets Near Dark meets anime, with a shot taken from Alan Moore’s Watchmen thrown in for good measure.

LG: And it turns out that Nomak was created by the vampires, so there’s a bit of a Frankenstein thing going on as well.

MO: It’s interesting that vampirism is also kind of looked upon as a virus in this thing, but also as a genetically-engineered mistake. Del Toro is interested in the Frankenstein thing of humans meddling in the wrong things, but here the vampires are meddling in things they shouldn’t. The real villain is the head vampire, played by Thomas Kretschmann of The Pianist. Kretschmann and the Blood Pack all have that vampire racism thing going for them. There’s a scene where, when the Blood Pack enters a vampire club, they complain that most of the vampires in attendance aren’t pure-bloods, and that they should just kill them all. It’s especially played up, though, when we learn Kretschmann is trying to make a perfect, pure vampire.

LG: And with Wesley Snipes here against the vampire racists, there’s a bit of a Blaxploitation thing going here and in the other Blade movies.

MO: And the Frankenstein thing comes out with Nomak. He’s meant to be the ultimate vampire, but the whole thing ends up biting them in the ass.

LG: Del Toro wants to do a proper Frankenstein movie…

MO: …but that’s among his billions of planned projects.

LG: Now, those Del Toro goo and gore effects that we love so much are here. There’s a scene in the vampire club where there’s a big rave, people are feeding and trading razorblades on tongues while they kiss like one might use ecstasy, a man is casually cutting into a topless woman’s back (a not so subtle reference to Devil’s Backbone). And most importantly in the scene, there’s a bit where a Reaper is impaled on the wall by a sword and has to crawl upwards and tear through his own genitals (which then repair) in order to get away.

MO: The gooeyness there is very purposeful. There’s a great sense of biology, which we get an even better sense of at a dissection of a Reaper corpse.

LG: We see that they have these sacks in their shoulder-blades that inflate when they eat. I’m not a biologist, and I’m sure real biologists would laugh their asses off at this very concept, but it feels real enough in the film to legitimize these creatures.

MO: It’s that shared quality Del Toro has with James Cameron- it’s gobbledygook, but it’s real gobbledygook. And we learn that their heart is incased in bone that’s very hard to puncture, which obviously gets away from one vampire weakness. And there’s another scene where Nomak kills a drug dealer by pushing him into a car window, and he pulls out a shard of glass in the guy’s neck and licks it, saying “so sweet”. It’s a nice moment of gore that serves the addiction angle.

LG: Ebert had a great line about the film calling it a “visceral vomitorium.”

MO: It is that, without a doubt. It plays with just how many kinds of blood we can have- blood gelatin, powdered blood, pools of blood for rejuvenation at the vampire headquarters.

LG: This is Del Toro’s first real action movie, and on our first viewing, I got the impression that I liked the action a lot better than you do.

MO: I can see anime as an influence, which is what Del Toro cites, but this is a point in time where everyone was influenced by anime and The Matrix, and there’s too much of that here. There are some interesting set-pieces, but he became more confident directing action with the Hellboy movies.

LG: I’d agree, but I’m going to stand up for the action here. The difference between the action here and in The Matrix is the sense of playfulness. Instead of martial arts, they’re doing wrestling moves. There are Road Runner moments to play up that this is a live-action cartoon. CGI obviously makes things less tactile, but Del Toro uses that as an excuse to do things with bodies that are impossible and make it really cartoonish and animated. It’s a stylistic choice that really works for this film, where I don’t think the digital stunt-doubles work as well for Hellboy. I will give you that the final fight is dull, perhaps because we’ve been overloaded with awesome moments, but that’s where I check out.

MO: There are some character bits in that fight that are interesting, but the actual fight scene has no sense of humor, where I’d agree that the overt cartoonishness are the best moments here. Example: Wesley Snipes’ performance in the Blade movies has always been a sticking point with me. There’s a sense of humor, but it’s too often self-consciously grim. An exception? His Wile E. Coyote look to the camera in a chase early on in the film. I also love when he uses a vampire as a human shield, as he gets shot the vampire yells out “Fuck, it’s not silver, but it hurts like hell!”.

LG: Or the vampire who wears a red boa and Blade promises to get him later, only to have the guy show up in an epilogue where Blade says, “You didn’t think I’d forget about you”. That’s a lot of fun. I also really like how Del Toro plays with the material of the first film and builds off of it.

MO: Some of what he does so well is how he plays with color and atmosphere. I love when Perlman kills a Reaper with an ultraviolet light ray, and as the vampire explodes, the light reflects off of Perlman’s face and sunglasses.

LG: Or how about the waves of blue light as the light bombs go off? It’s like a laser-light show mixed with Blade Runner. There’s his amber and cyan combo light that helps things pop and give it dimensionality.  The film looks fantastic.

MO: Two moments of cartoon violence I really love in this- first there’s Scud’s death.There's some nice, tense interplay between Scud and Whistler, since Whistler has been living with vampires for two years, and he could be a traitor. In actuality, Scud is a rat bastard who’s working for the vampires. The reveal has a nice moment of visual wit.  where Scud takes a bomb that was strapped to Perlman’s head and tell Blade that it was a dud to make Blade feel in control. Blade then presses the real button revealing that it wasn’t a dud, blowing Scud up. bones and blood goes flying everywhere while Kris Kristofferson gets the funniest line in the movie- “I was just starting to like him.”

LG: And since it’s a movie made in the early 2000s, we have to see the explosion eight times from different angles. That’s fun.

MO: The other bit of cartoon violence I love is in the fight between Perlman and Snipes, where Perlman is cut in half and he’s like a cartoon character who turns into two slabs of meat.

MO: Something else I like about Del Toro’s style is that while it’s a very propulsive and fleetly-paced film, Del Toro has time to have quiet tension-building moments. I love the intro of Nomak as he’s lured into a blood bank. We’re frightened of him because he’s odd-looking, but he might just have addiction problems, and we’re more frightened for him because he’s clearly in a place run by vampires. He’s lured in, and we see the camera pan into a room that’s soaked with blood. And then there’s a reversal that reveals that we should be more afraid of him, as his chin splits open and turns into a giant set of mandibles.

LG: It is a beautiful monster moment. That’s the thing about Del Toro- he believes that monsters are beautiful creatures, and he gives them their due. He will never cheap out on horror elements.

MO: Side note, I checked this out, and apparently the Reapers are influenced by Morbius the Living Vampire from Spider-Man.

LG: That makes sense. It’s a vampire created by scientific means, and they’re both Marvel. They actually wanted Nomak to just be Morbius, but I guess they were told no because Morbius was going to be used for a Spider-Man sequel. Because that happened, right? Right?

MO: Something else I love about Nomak is how sympathetic he is- he considers his existence a pathetic horror.

LG: Del Toro believes these monsters should be real characters, and this is something he’ll carry through to the Hellboy movies. We understand the villains point of view, and the they are very shrewd when planning against Blade. Just like Michael Corleone, they quote Sun Tzu’s “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” proverb.

That said, the Blood Pack isn't great at the whole "friends close and enemies closer" thing. They are terrible at their job. They’re meant to kill Blade, but they need him for this truce. You could wait until after Blade has done the job you've asked him to do before trying to kill him, but no. Instead, three of them try to take on Whistler, a 70-year-old man with a bad leg.

MO: Yeah, it’s pretty funny. Now, there are some brutal bits near the end, though, as Nomak takes a chunk out of the head vampire’s neck and lets him bleed out (green blood!) on the floor. And at the end of the otherwise disappointing final fight, Nomak’s heart is finally punctured, but not enough to kill him, and he realizes that this is his way out, so he kills himself. It’s a wonderful character moment.

LG: And because it’s anime-influenced, the camera zooms inside and sees the blade piercing the heart, which is neat.

MO: Nyssa’s death is less successful.

LG: There’s beautiful imagery as she dies, but it’s building off a quasi-romance thing between her and Blade that doesn't work. It might also bother us less if not for the fact that this death is repeated, to much greater effect, in Hellboy II. It does illustrate a very specific way Del Toro has improved as he’s gotten older. He’s kind of like Buster Keaton, in that he’ll tinker with moments in past films until he feels that he has them right.

MO: Now, do we feel like the lapsed Catholic thing is missing too much here?

LG: Well, there’s a few things, like a fight inside a church, but it’s more of a science thing rather than a religion thing in this one.

MO: Yeah, honestly, the scientific approach fits Blade.

LG: And I’ll give Del Toro his willingness to toy with his style, since his blockbusters have this modern gothic style that’s mixed with a technological edge. Kretschmann’s villain lair is a very Nosferatu-esque element, but there’s also a lot of futuristic material there, and that contrast helps build this world.

MO: It’ll be nice to see how he combines the scientific material with the lapsed Catholic material in Hellboy, but it’s good enough here.

LG: I enjoy the style and the gooeyness of this film so much that I’m giving it an A-.

MO: I’m going with a B. It’s minor work, to me, but it’s really enjoyable

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