Blade II (2002)

D: Guillermo del Toro
S: Wesley Snipes, Leonor Varela

Well mounted but relentlessly superficial sequel to Blade given visual polish by director Guillermo del Toro (Mimic) and production designer Carol Spier (long-time collaborator with David Cronenberg) but very little substance by screenwriter David S. Goyer (Dark City, Blade). A few years after the events portrayed in the original film, Blade (Wesley Snipes), a half-human, half-vampire vampire hunter, is reunited with his mentor, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), presumed dead but still alive and in the keeping of the vampire underground. The vampires strike a deal with Blade, hithertofore their greatest enemy: help them rid the world of a new strain of mutant vampire which is terrorising the undead community and there will be peace between them. Blade cautiously agrees, and is given command of an elite troupe of vampire assassins originally trained to kill him. It looks like it is going to be difficult to tell your friends from your enemies here, and Goyer doesn't disappoint with a series of twists and reversals which keep the story going.

Blade II is essentially a showcase for scenes of violent combat. The original film had two main strengths: its razor-sharp action scenes and its surprisingly strong and thematically resonant script. Pulp need not always condescend to its audience. The original film showed that it was possible to balance good, meaningful storytelling with over the top eye candy with good overall results. Blade II is content to take the first of its predecessor's strengths and go one better. The action scenes in Blade II are undoubtedly spectacular. Del Toro has an eye for unusual detail and a good sense of the rhythm and balance necessary to make scenes of violent mayhem sufficiently interesting to avoid accusations of exploitation. Though nothing in the film tops the nightclub opening scene from the first film in terms of shock and impact, it is more consistently impressive in itself. Del Toro does not blow his best moments early on and is able to keep a sense of anticipation building through the sheer variety of locations and combinations of characters he gets to use. Goyer is responsible for setting up the director with all of these opportunities, of course, but unfortunately there is less meat in the expositional and dramatic scenes which link them together.

The film initially seems to be exploring the correlation between vampirism and drugs which was an undercurrent in its predecessor. It opens with a pale, shivering man (Luke Goss) wandering into a poorly-lit blood bank in Prague, presumably desperate to give blood to get money to buy drugs. Throughout the early stages in which the 'reapers', as they're called, begin to proliferate, there are references to them being like crack addicts, which they certainly resemble, and, as in the original, some quick references to Blade's own dependence on an injected substance to survive. It is a case of been-there-done-that though, so Goyer, perhaps wisely, moves on with the comic book action as the so-called 'blood pack' (the vampire assassins) are introduced. They're a colourful bunch, led by slinky Leonor Varela and grumpy Ron Perlman (Enemy at the Gates) (the latter of whom seems to be making a career out of playing weirdoes of this kind). The movie then begins to wander into new territory, exploring bonds of honour among thieves, questions of family and tradition (Varela is the daughter of the vampire overlord who rules the vampire world), genetics (dark secrets about experimentation and mutation emerge which David Cronenberg might have had fun with had he been on board), and all kinds of other things which most viewers will not really look for but which are going on nonetheless.

Unlike in Blade however, these themes are not elegantly woven through the story, they simply pop up and scream "thematic ponderable" before diving beneath the sewer water to avoid the next swooping, slicing sword blade. While this is all very amusing, it does rob the film of the ability to grip you on any level other than the visceral. This may be all anyone expects of it, granted, but the film's character arcs and story resolutions depend on some kind of interest in what is happening on a deeper level, and there is no connection there between viewer and text. The audience is not invited to think because the makers have presumed that thinking would spoil their fun. They are not invited to feel either, because feeling anything for a comic book makes you a nutcase, right? There is no sense of empathy or disgust at either heroes or villains, and no compelling reason to bear with it and see how it works itself out if you are not enjoying the action. Luckily for del Toro, you usually are.

The film is entertaining if you have a taste for the genre. It is extremely violent, so it is not one for your kids or your grandmother, but its aesthetics are definitively comic book. Another of the strengths of its predecessor was the fact that it did not seem to be all that comic book in style. It almost worked as a traditional horror film. Blade II is primarily an action film set in a fantastic universe, which is why most viewers will enjoy it more freely. There is not much fear and dread here, just routine action suspense and moments of shock. As noted, it is extremely well done, but it is nonetheless disappointing that del Toro, whose reputation seems to have baffled many critics into lauding this film above its predecessor, was not able to take a more personal interest in the story and draw out some of its threads in a way which made a coherent whole. Perhaps he was simply having too relaxing a time staging action scenes and bloody massacres with megabuck money. Who can blame him for that?

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.