With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
In 2004, Ryan Reynolds talked to Entertainment Weekly about filming Blade: Trinity—by far the shittiest of the three Blade movies and Reynolds’ very first attempt to get himself a superhero franchise. Reynolds and Wesley Snipes, the man who played Blade, apparently didn’t get along. Addressing rumors of on-set tensions, Reynolds would say only this: “I’ve never met Wesley Snipes. I’ve only met Blade.” To this, anyone with any sense would only feel vast, painful envy. Who wouldn’t want to meet Blade? I would give everything I own to meet Blade.
Snipes’ Blade is, to my mind, one of the greatest cinematic creations of the late ’90s, even if he’d already existed as a comic book character for years beforehand. Blade is a superhero, sort of, but he’s driven by a singleminded need for vengeance, not by any desire to help people. Vampires killed his mother while he was being born, so he’s on a never-ending mission to destroy as much of the hidden vampire underground as he can while he’s still breathing. Snipes, both a legit martial artist and a great actor, imbued Blade with an imposing physical presence, a looming intensity that didn’t require words. Unlike most of the ’90s action heroes that came before him or the superheroes who would succeed him, Blade wasn’t a motormouth or a comedian. He was a force, a destroyer. He didn’t have internal conflicts, and he didn’t need anyone to like him. If he was sad about his path in life, Snipes could communicate that with a few facial expressions; he didn’t need a tearful soliloquy about it. The most outwardly emotional he ever gets is when he talks about his father figure, Whistler: “We have a good arrangement. He makes the weapons. I use them.”
For a little while, early in his career, Snipes had been considered an honest-to-god great dramatic actor. He’d been in a bunch of Spike Lee movies. He’d played the shit-talking playground basketball hustler Sidney Deane in White Men Can’t Jump and the charismatic drug lord Nino Brown in New Jack City. But instead of staying in that lane, he became an action hero. By the time he made Blade, Snipes had been on a run of action movies: Passenger 57, Boiling Point, Money Train.
Blade took better advantage of Snipes’ gifts—his genuine martial-arts ass-kicking capability, his authoritative way with a one-liner, his enormous presence—than any of those action movies. And he took the role as seriously as any of his straight-up dramatic roles. Blade required him to give some seriously goofy exposition about a hidden global vampire society: “The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping. There’s another world beneath it: the real world.” Precious few actors would be able to deliver lines like that with a straight face. Snipes inhabited them. He was Blade, and that’s one reason the movie worked so well.
There’d been no real precedent for a movie like Blade, though 1994’s The Crow, with its gothic trappings and its kung fu and its comic book origins, probably comes the closest. Marvel had been trying to make an actual hit movie out of one of its properties for years, and Blade was its first real attempt since the 1986 disaster Howard The Duck. The success of Blade didn’t just launch a franchise; it led directly to the comic book movie boom that would begin in earnest with X-Men two years later. At the same time, Blade didn’t offer the big-budget antic spectacle of the Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer movies that had dominated action cinema in the mid-’90s. Its fun sense of seriousness, its lowered budget, its intensity, and its gore would set the stage for a different style of action movie that would come along in the years ahead. Just a year later, The Matrix would arrive, borrowing Blade’s long black trench coats, spectacular kung fu scenes, and story about a hidden reality of monsters preying on humanity.
It’s hard to overstate just how exciting it was to see Blade in the theater. If you saw it, you probably went in with no expectations. Blade himself, after all, was a peripheral Marvel character, one who barely got any attention from fans. (I spent way too much of my preteen allowance on comics, and I’d mostly just remembered him as an occasional Ghost Rider sidekick.) And this was an era of goofy, mid-budget, CGI-heavy spectacles like Mortal Kombat, movies that were fun but nothing more. So if you saw it, you probably walked in thinking you’d kill an afternoon laughing at some silly dumb shit, and you walked out feeling like you were made of pure electricity.
The opening fight scene of Blade is one of the all-time greats. Traci Lords pulls a perfectly ’90s douche—a guy with frosted tips and a backward newsboy cap and a habit of calling his dick “my heatseeker”—through a meatpacking plant and into a hidden club, where there’s a rave going on. The douche thinks it’s great. But then blood pours down from the ceiling sprinklers, and he learns quickly enough that he’s surrounded by vampires. He crawls through the blood and finds a lone figure standing at the door. The vampires stop. They whisper to each other. It dawns on all of them what’s about to happen. And then a long and incredible fight sequence ensues, with Snipes slicing his way through the crowd, turning vampires into burning CGI skeletons.
The movie has no origin story, a great precedent that every other superhero movie would proceed to fuck up. We simply join Blade in action, and we catch up when the movie slowly fills in the blanks. Blade does, however, have a great supporting cast. Kris Kristofferson, perfectly cast as Blade’s grizzled mentor, Whistler, growls some of the movie’s best lines. Stephen Dorff plays the movie’s sly and brooding villain, Deacon Frost, a sort of vampire-world version of a tech-industry disruptor. A whole cast of cool-looking vampire elders meet their gruesome doom when Frost sacrifices them to rouse an ancient blood god, which would’ve been cooler if 1998 CGI hadn’t been so shitty. (The movie’s effects don’t look great, but it mostly uses them briefly and with visceral impact. The final showdown is the one real place they become a problem.) And Donal Logue plays an amazing cackling henchman, having the time of his life: “I’m gonna be naughty! I’m gonna be a naughty vampire god!” Logue’s character’s death is one of the most gloriously badass moments in a movie full of them.
Blade would go on to spawn a sequel that, against any conceivable odds, might’ve been even better than its predecessor. Guillermo Del Toro’s Blade II (2002) keeps the world-building and ass-kicking but adds in Del Toro’s weirdly beautiful visual sensibility and his gift for creature design. It went off the rails with Blade: Trinity (2004), and that was that for the franchise. Snipes would eventually fade into the straight-to-DVD action world before going to prison for a little while on tax-evasion charges that seemed trumped up. Director Stephen Norrington still has yet to make another movie after flaming out hard with the 2003 flop League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Writer David S. Goyer would go on to write the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and to help design the Zack Snyder-era DC cinematic universe. He’s made some truly shit movies, but he still wrote Blade, so we have to give him that.
In recent years, there have been rumors about a new Blade movie. Snipes loves teasing the idea on his shockingly fun Twitter feed, and the first two movies are beloved enough that I have to imagine the demand is there. If that doesn’t happen, could we at least let Blade join the Avengers or something? He’s earned it.
Other notable 1998 action movies: Jackie Chan had already become a star in America thanks to the dubbed theatrical rereleases of many of his Hong Kong movies, but he really, truly became a star in America with the release of Rush Hour, the Chris Tucker buddy comedy that made a stunning fuckpile of money. The movie spawned two sequels and briefly turned Brett Ratner, its mega-hack director, into an in-demand name. Still, Ratner had a better idea of how to shoot a Jackie Chan fight scene than almost any of the American directors who worked with him.
Other Hong Kong figures were also coming into American movies. Lethal Weapon 4 was probably the least memorable entry in the series, but it did give us Jet Li, making his English-language debut, as the blindingly fast, effortlessly badass villain. Chow Yun-Fat also made his way over, teaming with first-time director Antoine Fuqua for The Replacement Killers, a movie that was basically a tribute to his John Woo films. Woo himself made what might’ve been his weirdest American production with the TV movie (and failed pilot) Blackjack, which had Dolph Lundgren as an assassin who’s afraid of the color white. (It ends with a fight at a milk-processing plant.) And Tsui Hark followed his deeply bizarre Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Double Team with the almost-as-weird Knock Off, in which fashion exporter Van Damme teams up with CIA agent Rob Schneider to combat a global exploding-jeans plot.
Jackie Chan kept his grip on Hong Kong as well, playing an amnesiac warrior who defends a South African tribe from corrupt CIA agents in Who Am I? But the real story from Hong Kong that year was Johnnie To, who directed the fiery John Woo tribute A Hero Never Dies and produced (and allegedly ghost-directed) Expect The Unexpected and The Longest Nite. To hadn’t really found his artistic voice yet—that would come about a year later—but he’d already emerged as Hong Kong’s greatest action director in Woo’s absence.
Most of the American action movies from that year were fairly underwhelming. U.S. Marshals, a sequel to The Fugitive that swapped out Harrison Ford for Wesley Snipes, had some cool moments. The Siege, about a terrorist attack on New York, could’ve been a fun action movie, but decided to be more of a political thriller instead. Firestorm attempted to make an action star out of NFL commentator Howie Long. Soldier, a sci-fi flick about an uprising of genetically modified soldiers in space, might’ve marked the end of Kurt Russell’s career as a viable action star. Vampires was John Carpenter’s attempt to put James Woods at the center of a horror-movie Western, but in the year of motherfucking Blade, James Woods wasn’t going to cut it.
But 1998 did give us exactly one truly great non-Blade action movie: Ronin, in which old master John Frankenheimer threw Robert De Niro and a charismatic international cast through a series of attempted heists, double crosses, and amazing car chases. Ronin was a proudly old-school movie, and it didn’t exactly influence the action movies of the era, though I suppose a bit of its gray European sensibility bled through into the Bourne movies. But when you watch Ronin now, it feels like a movie out of time. It hasn’t aged at all, and if you haven’t seen it in a while, I can’t recommend it enough.
Next time: The Matrix rewrites all the rules.