Friday, October 14, 2016

Review: Blade II (2002)

Blade II (2002)

Rated R for strong pervasive violence and language, some drug use and sexual content

Score: 4 out of 5

The original Blade was very much a product of its time, but still a fun, modern take on vampires even years later. This, however, is the movie that the first one should've been, a bigger and badder sequel that fixes its predecessor's mistakes without losing what made it enjoyable, while also marking the arrival of Mexican filmmaker and future geek icon Guillermo del Toro in Hollywood. It's flashy and stylish, but not overdone like the first film, and combines high tension, body horror, roaring action, and another great performance from Wesley Snipes as the Daywalker. All told, it is a damn good action/horror film that the Underworld series wishes it could be.

Set two years after the first film, we begin with Blade, the titular vampire hunter who is himself half-vampire, learning that his mentor Whistler, who presumably died in the first film, is in fact still alive -- as a vampire held captive in eastern Europe and brutally tortured by the creatures of the night. Upon freeing him and restoring his humanity thanks to the serum that Karen developed at the end of the first film, Blade is approached by the leaders of vampire society, offering a truce. As it turns out, a new mutation of the vampire virus, one that produces zombie-like, superpowered "Reapers" who are immune to garlic and silver and prey on humans and vampires alike, has emerged and is now burning through the vampire community in Prague, and they are requesting his help. Together with the Bloodpack, a group of elite vampire soldiers who had ironically trained for the purpose of bringing down Blade, they unite and go to war in the nightclubs, alleys, and sewers of Prague, battling the Reapers and hoping to capture and kill their leader Jared Nomak. However, Blade and Whistler don't trust the Bloodpack, a feeling that is reciprocated, with both sides suspecting that the other is secretly planning to kill them -- and as it turns out, there's a lot more to Nomak than Blade's been told. Fighting alongside them is the Nyssa, daughter of the vampires' leader Eli, who slowly starts to realize that she too has been lied to by her father about far too much.

Right from the start, this film is pretty much non-stop action and horror, at times striking a balance between the two not unlike Aliens even if, overall, it leans more towards action. The plot is there to give Blade, Whistler, Nyssa, and the Bloodpack an excuse to run around and battle vampires and Reapers. The first act or so is almost a completely separate story, focusing on Blade learning that Whistler failed in his attempt to kill himself rather than become a vampire, and exists mainly to provide an excuse to bring back Kris Kristofferson after his character was seemingly killed off in the first film (notably, we never saw the actual gunshot, just heard it off-screen and then saw a tastefully dramatic shot of his arm falling to his side holding the gun). After that, we get a scene of Blade, Whistler, and his new punk assistant Josh, aka Scud, meeting the vampire leaders and the Bloodpack, and from there it's pretty much eighty minutes of shoot-em-ups, melee combat, and a bit of survival horror in the sewers until the final boss fight. I'm not using these video game analogies by accident -- the way this film is structured is remarkably similar to a game, the characters constantly progressing through various "levels" and getting a bit of exposition in between.

Fortunately, it feels like a good video game. Director Guillermo del Toro fills the meat of the film not just with violence, stalking, and great practical gore effects, he gives the characters personality and room to display it. The actors range from good to great, with Wesley Snipes easily able to combine stoicism and toughness with snark and wit, Kristofferson once more doing good as Blade's grumpy, grizzled father figure, Norman Reedus playing Scud as a cocky dumbass who you hate for all the right reasons, and Ron Perlman as the Bloodpack's leader Reinhardt displaying both badassery and moral ambiguity as you wonder whose side he's really on. Even the lesser members of the Bloodpack are all interesting, with each getting their moments and all of them convincing me that I do not want to mess with them. The lone weak link among the protagonists was Leonor Varela as Nyssa, who was often just "there". She behaved as the script required her to, but did no more to really elevate her character like Perlman did with his, and as such, I couldn't get as interested in Nyssa or buy her as somebody who could be on either side like I did with Reinhardt. Nomak, likewise, made for a dull bad guy, a generic doomsday villain who was only distinguished by his physical ickiness, and couldn't compare to Stephen Dorff's Deacon Frost from the original. That said, given the twist, it made sense that he felt like little more than a thug, especially since the machinations of Eli turned out to be far more interesting and threatening.

And as for the action and frights? Well, you can forget about the horribly primitive CGI from the original film, because del Toro puts his horror geekery on full display here. The nightclub scene is outright depraved even before the Reapers show up, with vampires torturing and flaying their human cattle and each other (hey, if you have healing powers, use them), all while early '00s techno blares in the background. The transformation from a normal vampire to a Reaper is a disgusting process, as is the Reapers' biology (especially their mouths and their pus-colored blood) and the vampires' autopsy of one that they had found starved to death. In the sewers, the Reapers lurk in the shadows, picking off the Bloodpack one by one and slowly whittling them down. They do start fighting back, however, and that's where del Toro's equally great knack for action scenes kicks in. Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen did the fight choreography, and it shows in the speed and physicality of the hand-to-hand fight scenes. It plays well to Snipes' physicality, and he kicks ass left and right throughout the film, though everybody else (not least of all Yen himself, who plays a member of the Bloodpack) still manages to keep up. The gunplay is also a treat, loud and explosive as Blade, Whistler, and the Bloodpack use every trick in the book to take on the Reavers. It packs a ton of flair without going too far over-the-top and turning ridiculous, and while the CGI is plentiful, it looks far better than it did before, especially when vampires burst into flames and turn to dust. The more spectacle-filled action scenes often look like they came out of an anime, and a damn good one too. The only complaint I had watching the action scenes came during the nightclub battle, when I was wondering why it took so long for the Bloodpack to start using the UV flashlights they had attached to their guns once it became clear that garlic, silver, and even shots to the head and heart weren't putting them down. I get that they were afraid of accidentally burning each other with them, but around five minutes into that scene, they were all off pretty much doing their own thing.

The Bottom Line:

It ranks as slightly weaker than the original film story-wise, but it more than makes up for it by fixing its predecessor's technical deficiencies and creating a great action/horror film out of them. If you liked the first Blade, you'll love this.

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